Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Convergent and divergent thinking

Just after James P. Carse published his delightful little book of logical theorems he titled Finite and Infinite games, I was fortunate enough to pick up a copy at a bookstore and browse the first couple of pages. I was immediately captivated by the nifty little statements that simply say what the game players do. It's a book of rules, then, about the rules people live by and don't often acknowledge. I immediately recognized the games I prefer, and why I like them. But what is so clever about this wonderful small but pithy piece of work, is the clarity and order it puts into little puzzling problems of communication, where one may be playing by the infinite game rule set, and dealing with someone playing by a finite4 game rule set. I found that by clarifying at least that for myself, I could keep clear, at least, and the confusion that seemed to be in place at times may not have been made clear between the other person and myself, but at least I was not so frustrated by it as I might have been, and at least I could take steps to minimize the uproar that often occurs when both parties are frustrated by a miscommunication.

Behind those little theorems that Carse produced lie two different forms of thinking, convergent and divergent. Convergent is causal and proof oriented, and thus for a purpose, and divergent is open ended and possibility oriented. The finite game player relies primarily on convergent thinking rules in the game and thus drives for a closure, or a completion, thus a winning. The Tai Chi divergent thinker foils that endlessly. A person I've dealt with on message boards, who I call Gerbil A, in some dim dark recess of his corrupted little brain, recognizes the possibilities of divergent thinking and thus tries to use it to disrupt a discussion. He also uses it to prove his little assumptions, like someone is "intellectually dishonest." That charge implies that the person must be using convergent thinking, and when they deviate from that thinking and explore other possibilities, they are "dishonest." What shows he's not so smart is that he doesn't recognize someone else that recognizes it. And now he doesn't know what to do, because his game depends on the other not recognizing it. And if he has any sense at all, he's got to recognize now that he's made a fool of himself. My guess is that's why I'm being left alone. In the end he's just a finite game player using something he really never took the trouble to understand. Because I challenged him to play the infinite game, and he couldn't. It's not that different from what you've done with your manipulative colleague.

The way I see it now, much of Eastern philosophical thought is based on an awareness of these two thought patterns. Some very bright people have made an effort to make sense of it throughout Western philosophy as well, and back in the Sixties, especially among those gathered along spots on the West Coast, some of them worked that out, and among them were guys like Alan Watts, and Gregory Bateson. Big Sur is an amazing location for me, and one place that was a gathering point was the Esalen Institute. Go to that link and just look at the picture, and you'll see, perhaps, why I went there to heal myself after my divorce.

Esalen Institute exists to promote the harmonious development of the whole person. It is a learning organization dedicated to restricted exploration of the human potential, and resists religious, scientific and other dogmas except for gestalt psychotherapy, which permeates all levels of the community based staff and business model. It fosters theory, practice, research, and institution-building to facilitate personal and social transformation and, to that end, sponsors seminars for the general public; invitational conferences; research programs; residencies for artists, scholars, scientists, and religious teachers; work-study programs; and semi-autonomous projects.

Michael Murphy, Chairman, Esalen Board of Trustees, Esalen Institute Statement of Purpose

I found myself drawn there even when I was still in the Navy, stationed in Alameda (not far from where I lived in Oakland years later.) So all of what I say has a depth of continuity that correlates to places like that, even if the thinking involved is not convergent and causal.

A number of features of my life seem to "magically" coalesce there, like the "Schizophrenia Research Project" which is what led me to Gregory Bateson thoughts, I suspect. Gregory Bateson's work with double binds and schizophrenia correlated with my interest in Eastern thought raised by my reading of Alan Watts after my own "awakening" when I went into a complete rebellion against the military authority system itself, a frustrated and trapped felling little gerbil that I found myself to be, running on my little wheel. Gregory Bateson himself drew on the Eastern thought to explain the double bind and the schizophrenic reaction to such things (paradox being a natural result of employing convergent logic to explain a divergent logical problem), and so much that puzzled me became clear when I witnessed that problem, not just in myself, but in what others around me were doing to make sense of their worlds. With that I already had the basic awareness for grasping what Gregory Bateson with his deutero learning was trying to describe when I first read it in his Steps to an Ecology of Mind in the early Seventies. The basic therapy process of Gestalt psychology was already embedded in this form in me, and these processes were all coalescing at the Esalen Institute, with the likes of well known proponents like Fritz Perls.

So the Esalen Institute on Big Sur was a "counter culture Nexus" in the Sixties, as some called it back then, and the point of an explosion of sorts, the results of which are reverberating in odd ways still today. I'd point to Usha and possibly even Thom as effects of that expansion of divergent awareness, which cannot be traced in convergent logic, and the results of what it could stimulate are the many possibilities that we see, interacting with forces that come up to contain it. Thom Hartmann himself is a kind of stepchild of Gregory Bateson through his connection to NLP and those who came along and bastardized it into a convergent thinking finite game of mind control. I'd love to run that narrative on the board and see where it goes. The counter action to the explosion of possibility thinking and the gestalt awareness that comes from it, is also visible, and the counter action is the convergent thinking in society that wants everything to make sense and thus have definable conclusions that can contain this explosion of possibilities that erupted, not really so much as a counter to the culture but as a breaking down of the prison walls of thought that have the gerbils endlessly spinning in their well fed, "happy" lives.

My writing is about that, when I think about it. All these little things I bring up, like binary oppositions as part of rational thought, my sense of how the world is evolving with the forces I try to describe, all of it. At least I have a "theme." What I don't have is a good set of understandable metaphors for others to make sense of what I'm saying, not unless they have transcended their own need to make sense of the world with convergent logic, and I see very little sign of that. So I have little hope that I will write anything that will every make open ended and playful sense in the way I'd hope it could.

The Esalen land is the true gift to the people who live and visit there, offering striking scenery set between mountains and ocean. Workshops cover many subjects including: The Arts, Ecopsychology, Health, Integral thought, Martial arts, Massage, Dance, Myth, Philosophical Inquiry, Somatics, Spiritual & Religious Studies, Transpersonal Process, Wilderness, Yoga, and Mindfulness.

Sometimes, when I think about things I think in this way, feel like I'm in about the place Robert Frost was when he produced
his last book of poetry: In The Clearing. That poem was one from that

Accidentally on Purpose -- by Robert Frost

The universe is but the Thing of things,
The things but balls all going round in rings.

Some of them mighty huge, some mighty tiny,
All of them radiant and mighty shiny.

They mean to tell us all was rolling blind
Till accidentally it hit on mind
In an albino monkey in a jungle

And even then it had to grope and bungle,

Till Darwin came to earth upon a year
To show the evolution how to steer.
They mean to tell us, though, the Omnibus
Had no real purpose till it got to us.

Never believe it. At the very worst
It must have had the purpose from the first
To produce purpose as the fitter bred:
We were just purpose coming to a head.

Whose purpose was it? His or Hers or Its?

Let's leave that to the scientific wits.
Grant me intention, purpose, and design--
That's near enough for me to the Divine.

And yet for all this help of head and brain
How happily instinctive we remain,

Our best guide upward further to the light,
Passionate preference such as love at sight.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Strategic Knowledge of Suicide Terrorism

A More Realistic Version of the Threat of Terrorism

I just finished watching the "Conversation with History" with Robert A Pape titled:

The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism.

I don't doubt his book is worth the read, but in lieu of that, this conversation holds some extremely valuable and mind blowing (I thought that might be a pun, but decided not to call it) insights based on some of the first research of its kind about suicide terrorism. If not up for the book, I recommend at least reading the interview at the above link, or watch a Google video I found:

The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism

As a preface to the video, I'd like to make the following comments: Descriptively, when the catastrophic event we now call 911 occurred, the Bush Administration had at least two fairly prominent, identifiable groups in an advisory capacity -- the realists and the idealist. The Neocons were the geostrategic idealists and they won their case about IR policy, however they won it -- there can be plenty of discussion about that.

In place was the still expensive, still self perpetuating military industrial complex. The notion that the military could promote democracy faster in the Arc of Instability is embedded in the Neoconservative ideology, where the realists are less concerned with the need for immediate gratification on that score, and much more sensitive to keeping down the roiling of emotions and political struggles that resort to violence, so that sensible neoliberalism policies begun with some real earnestness during the Reagan Administration can go forth, promoting its form of elite democracy, which some, especially those in populist democratic movements in South America, refer to as "polyarchy." That's where prime examples of the wealthy elite are offered to the rabble for selection. Basically what's evolved here in the past 150 years, or so.

Realists, like Robert Pape, referenced above, video interview below, would simply look at the causes of these terror acts and find strategies that they hope will not inflame the likes of the Ossama bin Ladens and move on. The idealists are looking at the scene more like it's a strategic computer game, and the human beings are bots in the game. Thus considerations of culture, human beings and their interactions and so forth aren't that key to the programming, and the strategy doesn't include such trivialities.

What makes that the case? Well, we get into cultural ideologies, the mythos and the way that can be manipulated through all sorts of storytelling, not the least of which is an event like the recent Super Bowl and the little mini stories that flash in and out called commercials.

We can talk about what to do about that in an abstract sense, but the details of it, that permeate each person's life, drip constantly upon them and it is what they are, because it is part of what they do, every single day.

All I can see to do is create these meta text narratives describing what is going on. If we can keep that narrative going, there is some hope that at critical moments when people are listening, as I believe many are right now, a narrative that offers something insightful might grab them enough to want to explore it for themselves. I'm watching people around me in a very small and remote county here, 21,000 people total in the county, replacing their signs that had Bush/Cheney with Ron Paul. They are sharing DVD's with each other about 911 conspiracies, and they are questioning.

I don't know what that can come to, but when I say something now, I don't see the barriers going up in the back of the eyes like I used to.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Liminality -- the Territory Beneath the Maps of Binary Opposition

I've introduced liminality, now, so maybe it's time to build a bridge of symbolic connections from
Pi (tag line "faith in chaos) to the language of liminality, which was what primarily inspired me to study symbolic anthropology, an aspect of the field that made an important contribution to the post structuralist studies (post modernist is another descriptor, since modernism, which led to the liberal thought of the U.S. Founders, was derived from an epistimology with its foundations in Cartesian duality) that followed the Twentieth Century works of such well known figures as Claude Levi Strauss. Strauss is a signature figure in cultural anthropology, who brought to bear on the study of culture the analytical power of the binary opposition, which is perhaps the heart and soul of the structuralist's tool kit. In his well known tome, the Raw and the Cooked, he brought his now famous two by two matrix, a binary opposition technique, to the study of such ethnographically recorded behaviors as exotic people's culinary practices. In doing so, he revealed possibilities of meaning theretofore unimagined by this daily and necessary human function of eating, that led to all sorts of ways of making sense of nearly a century of anthropologist gathered ethnographic data. So while he did go into the field to do ethnographic research of his own early on, for the most part his re-analysis of the research of others was the technique he used to develop his structuralist theories, and how he managed to transform the whole of anthropological thought into a new theoretical paradigm, much as Einstein transformed physics. Then Victor Turner came along and went beyond, into the unknown and the irrational, and did an astounding exploration into the realm of Pi, as I would suggest, and why I began with looking at the movie. When I'm looking at what appear to be meanings from a field of binary oppositions, I'm doing so with my explorations into what Turner coined "anti structure" to go with Van Gennep's liminality in mind, and aided by readings into the exploratory works of Victor Turner:

Turner sought to gaze upon interstices which 'provide homes for anti-structural visions, thoughts and ultimately behaviours' (1974:293). That such times and spaces are regarded as necessary sources of resolution, is the crux of Turner's perspective. Meta-explorations beyond, beneath and between the fixed, the finished and the predictable, his later work consists of an extensive journey into such times and spaces, pregnant margins, the cracks of society, necessary thresholds of dissolution and indeterminacy through which socio-cultural order is said to be (re)constituted. And, through observation of culture unkempt and unclothed, in its drunken, ludic and inchoate moments, one may obtain a clear apprehension of the ordered world.

His project is founded upon a sense that society is in-composition, open-ended, forever becoming, and that its (re)production is dependent upon the periodic appearance, in the history of societies and in the lives of individuals, of organised moments of categorical disarray and intense reflexive potential. This is most powerfully articulated as liminality, a concept which has sparked the imagination of cultural observers attempting to apply meaning to a phalanx of public time-space zones demarcated from routine life, yet harbouring unquantifiable social possibilities. It is in such zones of experience - the 'realm of pure possibility' (Turner 1967a:97) - where the familiar may be stripped of its certitude and conventional economics and politics transcended. They are occasions where people, often strangers to one another, may achieve an ineffable affinity, where sacred truths are imparted and/or social alternatives explored. (From: Alternative Cultural Heterotopia: ConFest as Australia's Marginal Centre - by Dr. Graham St. John)

Turner's "anti structure" is not so much a conceptual opposite to structure -- as for instance raw might be to cooked; for him anti structure was the field, and structure was the map through the field that set up the boundaries that defined people's lives in which the dramas of their lives took place. Hence the title of one of his books: Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. When I discovered Victor Turner's work upon stumbling upon this book in my anthropological studies in college, it fit into an obsession that began shortly after I returned from 'Nam, around 1970, after my big "Rite of Passage" (a concept which is an important focus in Turner's work) and continues to now. Much of the work in the intellectual work in various fields during the late 70s, 80s and 90s reflects this what I found embedded in Turner's thought -- and I'd argue that it's certainly seeded into post modernism and semiotics -- and it came out most creatively in a number of different fields, including the cognitive sciences. Intellectually this was a very creative period, a breaking down of the certainties that one finds in the scholarship of structuralism which made up the bulk of the field I found most fascinating at the time -- anthropology --as exploratory thinkers moved into the realms of liminal thought, where that thought is characterized by ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy. This is the stage in a traditional rite of passage where a sense of identity dissolves -- at least to some extent -- bringing about a sense of disorientation. This is a period of transition, maybe even transcendence, where self definitions and their inherent conceptual limits, and related limits on behavior are relaxed, and opens the mind to the possibilities of new perspectives. So, then, another term for liminal that Turner uses in his work is anti structure. If we see that society is made up of codified rules, or norms of behaviors, those are in essence the features we recognize as structures of society. For most within a society, these are considered "common sense" ways to behave. Most of them go unquestioned for the most part, until something "odd" comes to attention. Anti structure would be behavior outside those norms. Some may be defined as "pathological" by a society, like, perhaps, killing another human being. Some may be behaviors that don't have such clearly definable contours, but as a whole, people tend to know what "odd" is when they see it. People who are put in a category like "insane" for instance, may be doing nothing to violate another's socially defined rights, they just may not be acting according to the accepted norms. Here are the lines worth revisiting in regards to what I'm trying to describe, from the above quote from St. John's PhD dissertation:

Meta-explorations beyond, beneath and between the fixed, the finished and the predictable, his (edit: Turner's) later work consists of an extensive journey into such times and spaces, pregnant margins, the cracks of society, necessary thresholds of dissolution and indeterminacy through which socio-cultural order is said to be (re)constituted. And, through observation of culture unkempt and unclothed, in its drunken, ludic and inchoate moments, one may obtain a clear apprehension of the ordered world.
As you might see, this intellectual tool quickly lends itself to a task of theoretical analysis of society. That is, it does so once we grasp the notion of relating the abstractions of ideas involved in norms of behavior to structure/antistructure (also the word liminality, or the idea of irrational numbers that refuse to behave strictly according to mathematical code and be neatly defined and contained like a rational number). With this tool we can move thought to another abstract plane, and from there it then becomes attractive for some of us to begin theorizing about the macro possibilities of how any given society could or should work. In order to try to develop this thought a bit more, I'm going to introduce the model of a process I've already mentioned -- the rite of passage. Rites of passage fascinated me when I first encountered it because it provided me with a conceptual form that enabled me to objectively conceptualize one of my most life changing experiences, and thereby put it in a perspective that helped me make sense of a lot of things I found myself deeply troubled about after I'd returned home from being in the military. I mentioned the Dutch anthropologist Arnold van Gennep earlier, he is credited with being the first to formally define the distinctive structure of a rite of passage at the turn of the Twentieth Century. I want to work on putting something together that's not just one of my stream of consciousness hodge podges, but that might offer me a way of opening up and sharing more about what I see in this core thought about binary oppositions, and hopefully to thereby give it some form to help make sense of these notions of structure, and antistructure -- or liminality -- that I've introduced. Other words for the concept of structure, by the way, would be terms like "metaphor" or "symbol" and thus we have the connection to how structuralism is also a powerful intellectual tool used in understanding literature -- and in fact all the arts. Recall that I alluded to that idea earlier with some quotes about the importance of understanding binary oppositions in the analysis of text. Here's a very brief description of Gennep's notion of the rite of passage:

According to van Gennep, rites of passage have three phases: separation, liminality, and incorporation. In the first phase, people withdraw from the group and begin moving from one place or status to another. In the third phase, they reenter society, having completed the rite. The liminal phase is the period between states, during which people have left one place or state but haven't yet entered or joined the next. It is a state of limbo.

And so to connect this with the forms I was seeing at the beginning of this essay when I constructed those lines I called Gerbil Pi:

(Pi the Textual analysis)

Pi stands as the unbridgeable gap between the purity of the mathematical perfect circle and all physical circles. To know Pi in 100% precision (Which math proved is impossible since there is always a next number to the fraction), is impossible since it will bridge math and reality. But this is impossible since reality is not pure, not black and white but in shades of gray. Everything in reality is a matter of degree…


...Our mathematician is intrigued, he walks to the object and observes it’s a sea shell.. He picks it up and observes it carefully as he turns it with both his hands – He observes the spiral pattern, the same pattern he tries to impose on nature throughout the movie… One scene later he picks up a piece of computer board he crushed into the floor in a moment of crisis. He treats the board as the shell… This is the focal point of the story, it has double meaning. The computer board contains chips, units of integrated circuits that operates with Binary Logic (i.e. 0’s and 1’s). The shell symbolize nature, it was created in a natural process and shows a pattern that our Archimedes tries to break into code. This is the essence of the story right here – Break nature code with binary computation. As we’ll later show, and as we see in the movie – this will end in an inevitable crash. Nature simple does not obey the law of Aristotelian logic. Attempt to reduce nature, life, you name it to a code, a mathematical formula, is doomed to fail. Science must admit this before any significant achievement in AI can happen. Max sees the simplicity of the circle and tries to reduce chaos back to it, but the circle is not simple in the first place, it is fuzzy…

This is really fascinating symbolic mental play land, for me at least, and I want to introduce something that all societies seem to share, and that's formal rituals that flirt with the categories that make for the definitions of normalcy, abnormalcy and pathology. This particular description of this ritual offers a fairly well elucidated description of the structural elements of this rite of passage type of ritual for those not familiar with it, and with that, an interesting formal discussion of it's meaning. Being a graduated Shellback myself, having crossed the equator twice, I've been on both sides of the ritual, so this particular ritual has very real and personal meaning, but, more so, it's also one of the better descriptions I've run across of a kind of rite of passage we do practice in Western societies, for some, a geniune "crossing the line" ritual -- in this the equator -- and a four hundred year old maritime ritual for recognizing that fairly abstract human culturally developed knowledge that would go into knowing that there is an equator to cross. Notice in particular in the article, references to "ritual inversion" practices, where the normally homophobic sailors do ritual transvestitist practices, among other symbolic gestures. Another is "the Pollywogs' Revenge" which takes place the day before crossing the equator. In the literature of symbolic ritual action, this represents the moving into the liminal, the chaotic, the realm of "dangerously undefined" and also the important region of creativity where artists and others (various types of shamanic persons, priests, scientist) draw from. In the literature this is considered something societies recognize as necessary in order to recognize the importance of divesting oneself of one identity (a pollywog in this instance) to become another (a shellback -- shellback is a word for turtle).

The following is from the Introduction in the article: Crossing the line: sex, power, justice, and the U.S. Navy at the equator (military rituals) in the Journal: Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy, 22-June-2002:


When my father came home from a seven-month Gulf War cruise in 1991, he told me about his participation in a bizarre ceremony when his ship crossed the equator. He talked of men receiving unusual haircuts, being paddled and insulted, being smeared with garbage and old food, and, most curiously, of a number of the men on the ship dressing up as women for a beauty pageant. He showed me photographs of men covered from head to toe in filth and being beaten with pieces of fire hose, and other pictures of men flashing massive false breasts to a crowd. As intrigued as I was, I was not surprised at the content of the ceremony. Having grown up a Navy brat, living near or in large Navy communities my entire life, I had grown used to the antics of Naval personnel. I had no problem picturing many of the Navy sailors and officers whom I knew participating in and laughing at the abuse and delighting in the garbage. And despite, or perhaps because of, many of the men's beliefs that women and homosexuals had no place in the Navy, I was not at all surprised at their amusement and willingness to participate in the transvestite pageant. Inexplicably, it just seemed to fit.

Yet, considering the accusations of homophobia, sexism, and sexual harassment that have arisen over the past twenty years, how and why would these same men would willingly submit to being spanked and straddled by other men? What was so important about this ceremony that would make sailors shave their legs and don false breasts and teddies? More importantly, why did I automatically interpret these actions as being normal for this group of people?

The Navy's resistance to women in its ranks is second only to its resistance to homosexuals. Until 1991, women were denied the opportunity to fly fighter jets in the Navy, and only within the past few decades have women been able to sail on ships previously staffed only by men. (1) Where other militaries have found ways to accommodate women and homosexuals in their ranks, it has been a slow and violent process in the U.S. (2) There seems to be no strong logical argument behind the extreme reluctance of the Navy to permit women equal rights, or to permit homosexuals any rights at all. (3) As one gay comedian stated in response to military concerns over the ability of gays to serve, "... what does the military think? That the gays are so sexual that they can't be trusted? What? In the heat of battle they're going to want to have sex with the enemy? `I couldn't shoot him, captain--he was gorgeous!' I don't think so." (4)

In examining the Crossing the Line (or "Shellback") ceremony, it becomes more apparent how intimately these issues are interwoven in the ritual. Through ritual play, ideas about gender, sexuality, and power are acted out. Although this is only one ritual, and one that not all Navy personnel participate in, it does offer one view into how political issues in the Navy are played out and resolved.

A. The Great Fraternal Order of the Raging Main

The Navy ceremony of "Crossing the Line" is a tradition which originated over four hundred years ago, and which continues in strong form today. (5) It is a vivid and unexpectedly sanctioned Naval event in which the uninitiated Naval personnel who have never crossed the equator pass through a series of tests which induct them into the realm of the initiated. It is a brutal and sometimes dangerous transformation. Members are beaten, yelled at, covered in garbage and filth, and made to perform denigrating tasks. Yet the ceremony not only continues, but is fiercely defended by many of its participants, including all the Navy members whom I interviewed.

What is so fascinating about the ritual is the power that it wields. This power comes in several forms. Internally, the drama of the ceremony aids in the manifestation and affirmation of deeply rooted beliefs about gender roles, sex and domination. The drama itself contains much power, as the brutality, beatings and humiliation are not only permitted, but encouraged as tools of transformation. Finally, the ceremony itself is of such importance that men in the stringently hierarchical Navy would deliberately disobey orders in order to ensure its continuance. (6)

The ceremony is complex and varied enough to be considered a ritual. There are two groups of participants, the initiated and the uninitiated. The two groups are distinctly characterized, placed in opposition to demonstrate the difference between the undesirable qualities of the uninitiated and the desired qualities of the initiated. The uninitiated are physically and psychologically tested by the initiates until they are proven acceptable. Throughout the ritual, the initiated take the male position and the uninitiated take the female position. As uninitiated become initiated, they assume a masculine identity that is defined in relation to the feminine characters which they just portrayed. At the end, all participants embody the particular positive, male qualities of the initiated and become members of the "Great Fraternal Order of the Raging Main," under the great leader, King Neptune.

B. The Players

The two groups of participants in the ceremony are the "shellbacks," who have been initiated into the Great Fraternal Order of the Raging Main, and the "pollywogs," who are uninitiated. The uninitiated name can be spelled either "pollywog" or "polliwog," or shortened to "wog." All three names are used interchangeably in the ceremony and in this text. The image associated with shellbacks is that of a turtle, while the meaning of pollywog is that of an infant frog, before metamorphosis.

Women's roles, both as characters and as participants, are important in the ritual. As characters, they work in the ceremony to illustrate ideas about women's social positioning in relation to each other and to men. As participants, women break the previous all-male discussion of gender. In this sense, a comparison of the ritual with and without the presence of women is revealing of how the men in the ceremony understand gender, and how they are forced to change that understanding when women are present.

As more women are introduced to this ritual, the meaning and form of the ceremony continue to change. The U.S. Navy is a male-dominated organization, and, until recently, women were not permitted to serve on ships or submarines. The first exceptions to this ruling were small ships called "tenders," which tended the needs of larger ships such as battleships or carriers. These ships are responsible for repairing and supplying the larger ships or submarines. Three cruise books of one of these ships, the USS Samuel Gompers, were reviewed and compared to other, entirely male-staffed ships and the differences and similarities are discussed later in this note. (7) Because of the rarity of female-staffed ships, however, the ritual is reviewed and analyzed in the context of an all-male setting. Historical and contemporary issues of women's participation in this ritual will be addressed, but until recently they have played a minor role in this ceremony. As the dynamics of the Navy change, with more and more women serving on larger ships as seamen, officers and pilots, the ceremony will no doubt change with it.

C. Organization

Part II of this note establishes the background of the crossing the equator ceremony. It will discuss the origins, development, and meaning of the European ritual as it grew over four centuries. Part III will examine the current day ritual, outlining the passage of the pollywogs from days before the crossing until they receive their shellback certificates. Part IV will follow the pollywog through the ritual process. The life, death and rebirth of the pollywogs as shellbacks will be discussed within the ritual, along with the impact this transition has on the participants' understanding of relations of gender and sexuality. Parts V and VI will delve more deeply into these relations, with the former examining the ritual's understanding of women and of male/female relationships, and the latter examining the ritual's understanding of homosexuality and of heterosexual/homosexual relationships. Part VII will view the ritual in its entirety, and will examine masculine identity in the ritual and in the Navy.

Much of the contestation over women and gays in the military stems from the understandings of gender and sex that exist in the military today and that are expressed through the ceremony. This note attempts to examine how ideas of gender, sexuality, hierarchy and power are played out in the ceremony, and to explore how these ideas impact the development of military legal policy.


The first documented ceremonies at the equator were found in accounts of journeys of French ships in the early sixteenth century. The expansion of trade routes and the funding of exploration of foreign lands at that time allowed European vessels to regularly cross the equator. Regular crossings of the equator, a location marked as "0" degrees latitude and conceptualized as the dividing line between north and south, set the stage for the development of a rite of passage. (8) Shortly after a regular route across the equator was established, various accounts of ceremonies at the line began appearing. (9) These early ceremonies were comprised chiefly of two parts: a religious ceremony of thanksgiving for having passed a certain point, and an initiation (baptism) symbolizing the passing from one stage to the next. (10) By the mid-sixteenth century, sailors had begun to regard it as an ancient right that they baptize those who had not been over the equator before, and they did so by blacking themselves and dressing up in costumes. (11) The equator initiation ceremony soon spread to other European ships and quickly became more complex in form.

To the Europeans of this era, crossing the equator literally inverted their world. The equatorial line was present on world maps before the time of the first accounts of the ceremony, and there were many superstitions about the world and people below the line. It is especially interesting to note that a popular belief at the time was that "anyone of another race who crossed the equator would become a Negro." (12) Hints of this belief can be seen in the use of black-faced police characters who controlled the movements of the uninitiated, in the placing of "Negroes" in positions of power, and in the application of shaving substances so that the man's face was half white and half black. (13) This clearly illustrates the position of the man on the line of inversion.

Although the ritual's purposes are difficult to ascertain because of lack of first-hand information, one can picture the ritual as a testing of new or young shipmates. The crew had only each other to rely on for months at a time. Thus it became absolutely necessary to be able to depend on one's shipmates. The ritual could therefore be viewed as not only the testing of inexperienced shipmates, but also as the remaking of the crewmember in the ship's image. The uninitiated (greenhorns) were literally and figuratively put on trial - literally in the ceremony with a mock trial, and figuratively because the ritual tried the strength and character of the inexperienced. The greenhorn then effectively gave his body over to the initiated to be recreated. Different ceremony characters performed numerous invasive "operations" to heal and "clean" the greenhorn, and to bring the greenhorn back to a newborn state: shaven and covered in blood. Afterwards, the greenhorn was baptized and was given a new name or a password. Thus, the ritual produced a man who had stood trial, passed the tests, and emerged as a new man and as part of the brotherhood of the crew.

Although the first accounts described a fairly simple ceremony, usually involving dunking new crew members and feasting afterward, the British, and later American, Crossing the Line rituals developed into complex rituals. As the social context changed, so did the shape of the ritual, and so did its meaning.


The most striking thing about the Crossing the Equator ceremony, as it has been performed over the past 30 years, is a fluidity of style around a distinctive infrastructure. When piecing together the ritual today, it is difficult to find one format that all ceremonies follow exactly. Traces of the historical rituals appear in much of the current ritual, but they have metamorphosed into a form which is meaningful to the contemporary participants.

A. Setting Up the Crossing

For several days or even weeks before the ceremony, menacing cartoons and flyers are posted around the ship by shellbacks. Some of the flyers are targeted at specific people (usually chiefs or officers), but many address pollywogs in general. (14) Shellbacks assail pollywogs with threats and stories of past horrors, attempting to create a feeling of dread for the next day's proceedings.

The day before the ceremony is marked by two major events: Davy Jones' visit and the wog queen ceremony. Davy Jones is a character whose origins are unclear, but who in the eighteenth century was believed to be an evil spirit of the sea. His first name is thought to be a corruption of "duffy" or "duppy," West Indian words for devil, and his last name is thought to be derived from the biblical character Jonah, who was swallowed alive by a whale and who symbolizes death and misfortune. (15) "Davy Jones Locker" is a sailor's term for the depths of the sea--a repository for drowned sailors. (16) In this situation, he works under orders from King Neptune and delivers announcements which are necessary in setting up the ritual.

In a small ceremony, Davy Jones (a disguised shellback) "arrives" on the ship to warn the captain "that he [is] trespassing into the Royal Domain" with slimy pollywogs aboard. (17) Accompanied by a small entourage, Davy reads a formal message from Neptune regarding his impending visit and then outlines what must be done to prepare for it. On behalf of King Neptune, he outlines special watches and dress codes for both shellbacks and pollywogs. The watches are absurd creations such as Coriolis Swirl watch, Bow watch, or Chief of the Smoke watch, the purpose of which was to "make sure that the ship does not make smoke in excessive quantities which might offend King Neptune." (18) There are always, of course, special lookout watches for the "Line." The men on duty for these watches must wear bizarre outfits and are often equipped with silly instruments, such as binoculars made of two rolls of toilet paper, and have to follow strict rules of conduct.

The subpoenas that were delivered to the pollywogs are also farcical in nature. Filled with ridiculous accusations and insults, they are often printed as formal certificates. Any sailor who does not have a shellback card receives a subpoena, regardless of rank. The following are sample pollywog subpoenas from the USS America crossing in 1968 and the USS Bainbridge crossing in 1980:

In the highest court of the raging main, the domain of Imperium Neptuni Regis sends greetings to all slimy pollywogs. You are commanded to appear before the royal court on April 24, 1968. A complaint has been filed with the government of the domain of Imperium Neptuni Regis, state of the Raging Main, against you. You are charged with the heinous crimes of brown baggery, mopery, doping off, chit requesting, apple polishing, sympathy seeking, gun decking, procrastination, gold bricking, liberty hounding, and reveille neglecting. You have conspired to enter the royal domain without visa, passport, or proper authority. Davy Jones, Royal Scribe. (19) Here ye, here ye! It has been brought to his royal highness, Neptunus Rex, through his trusty shellbacks, that certain of ye boxcar tourists and park bench sitters, hay makers and other landlubbers attached to the good ship and soon to enter my domain, are treating his royal highness with contempt, and are committing acts of insurrection and sedition. Know ye, and take dire notice accordingly that such words and such acts meet with his royal majesty's profound displeasure and will be punished by eternal pickling or such other torment as this royal highness may deem appropriate. The beginnings ... a message from the royal scribe, Davy Jones. (20)

Each shellback, to prove that he is truly a shellback, and not a pollywog in disguise, must present his shellback card, which is received, with a certificate, at the end of the ceremony. In several unfortunate cases, a shellback has lost or forgotten his shellback card, and so must go through the ceremony all over again.

Before, during and after Davy Jones' visit, harassment of pollywogs continues in many forms. Pollywogs are often dressed as dogs, with eyes and noses blackened, leashes and dog collars attached, and signs worn which attest to their status. There is even a "wog dog auction" to raise money for events or causes. Shellbacks may purchase or select wog dogs and order them to crawl on hands and knees, bark, and attack or hump other wog dogs. (21) One account describes it as such:

[W]e always had--we called them wog dogs. When you're a shellback you can pick one or two wogs as your personal wogs; you put them on a leash and run them around the ship. And I had this guy.... I often had him screwing or getting screwed by other wogs.... (22)

Other wogs can be seen in photographs as sweeping or cleaning the ship while tied to a leash, or shining the shoes of a shellback. (23) There are also accounts of pollywogs receiving unfortunate haircuts, pollywogs being painted like "Indians on the warpath," and groups of pollywogs being made to sing songs or recite prayers. Certain pollywogs are given strange tasks such as aboard the USS Cutlass, a U.S. submarine:

During all this, three pollywogs were disturbing the peace, on orders. One of them ran through the boat carrying a beer tray and an ash tray and yelling 'I'm a trash can,' another following close behind with a bell and announcing that he was a fire engine; while the third paraded with an inflated `safety,' yelling at the top of his lungs, `I'm a prophylactic!' (24)

In many accounts, shellbacks stand by, armed with paddles or pieces of fire hose, to punish pollywogs who do not do exactly as they are told. If hungry, the wogs are allowed to eat food off the deck or are served supper in a trough from which they must eat without silverware and often without hands. The latter tactic is also used for wog breakfasts on the day of the ceremony.

A "pollywog prayer" was mentioned in several cruise books and sources as a plea to God (or King Neptune) for support during the upcoming initiation ceremony. Oftentimes, pollywogs are forced to memorize the prayer and to recite it early in the morning of the day of the ceremony. Some appeal to King Neptune for forgiveness:

Oh King Neptune. As we lowly pollywogs gather this morning we pray that today you will have mercy upon our poor souls and very weak bodies and minds. Please, Oh King, forgive us our many trespasses as we forgive shellbacks who trespass against us. Guide us through the night and keep us from going into passageways and by-paths of the unknown. Please, Oh, King, forgive us our landlubberly sins and we shall follow you and your loyal subjects. (25)

Still others are written in response to the shellbacks' threats, and appeal to the Christian God, who is presumably not a shellback.

Our Father, who is not a shellback, please look over us "wogs" through this upcoming humiliation and torturous initiation. Forgive the shellbacks, our Father, for they know well what they are about to do. As we enter the land of Neptunus Rex, may your "anti-shellback presence" be with us and guide us with dignity to endure the tortures of flogging, volleys of garbage and pools of foul seaweed. Let us fear no shellback, knowing you truly rule the equator. (26) Great God in heaven, you are our life, our strength, and our joy--an ever-present helper and defender. Look with loving mercy upon this ship. Guide us into a better knowledge of your will and of the beauty of your holiness. May your servants of this great navy, and especially upon this ship, make choices of spiritual integrity and show forth the spirit of him who gave himself for the world, Jesus Christ, your son, amen. Oh, and one more thing, Lord: hold back your wrath from the despicable shellbacks and have pity on their sad estate. With their lice-infested bodies, perverted and fermented minds, their unintelligible language, repulsive habits and otherwise rebellious spirit, they are indeed at the nadir of life, yeah in its darkest shadows. Forsake not the selfish shellback, but have mercy on them for they know not what they do. (27)

The latter two examples are also part of the "pollywog uprising," a part of the ceremony which is found in numerous instances.

B. The Pollywogs' Revenge

The "pollywog uprising" is a sometimes-successful attempt by the pollywogs temporarily to refute the authority of the shellbacks. If successful, the pollywogs capture hapless shellbacks for a short period of time and perform the same initiation procedures as will be performed the next day by the shellbacks. Sometimes the uprising is merely a subversive tactic, such as a pollywog chef serving old pork disguised as breaded veal to shellbacks while reserving the veal for the pollywogs. (28) Other times it is much more violent, involving the capture and humiliation of shellbacks. Shellbacks are sentenced to

... dance ring around the rosy; [are] lashed to the rail and wet down; dance, sing and tell sea stories; run a paddle-wheel gauntlet and be dumped into a pool; be lashed to the deck or to stretchers; be given an egg shampoo; give an exhibition of trucking; furnish sandwiches to the pollywog court. (29)

Still other attempts aim at undermining the shellbacks' plans for the next day by putting pepper into vents leading into shellbacks' quarters or by trying to destroy initiation equipment. (30) A fairly universal trait of the uprising is the creation of and attempted flying of the pollywog flag. There are also poems and songs written by pollywogs that threaten King Neptune and declare the supremacy of pollywogs. (31) The uprising is ultimately futile because it never succeeds in overturning the next day's events, but it is nearly always attempted. Regardless of the measure of its success in being carried out (sometimes shellback spies discover the uprising plans and stop them before their fruition), whoever is discovered to be directly involved in the operation is given twice the harassment the next day.

C. Wog Queen Pageant

Another event that is crucial to the ceremony and which often occurs the day before the crossing of the equator is the "wog queen pageant." It is ordained by Davy Jones that the best looking pollywog shall be crowned "wog queen" and may sit on King Neptune's court--the only wog with that privilege. In this pageant, a group of pollywogs, usually consisting of a pollywog from each department, is selected to participate in a fashion and talent show for the shellbacks. These male pollywogs dress as women and perform seductive or funny dances, songs or acts. (32) The wog who is crowned queen is the one who most convincingly portrays a woman. Photographs of these men show a range of portrayals, wearing everything from see-through lingerie with long blond wigs and spike heels to classy dresses and sophisticated wig styles to short skirts and ridiculously massive plastic breasts. (33) Almost all of the men wear large fake breasts, makeup and high heels. An interesting twist that occurs on some ships staffed with significant numbers of women is dual cross-dressing, where men and women are paired up and must dress in clothes of the other sex. Davy Jones' orders in this case are quoted in a cruise book:

`For you must...

To summarize: the set of concepts I have been pulling together in this section are an attempt to illustrate the core rational duality cognitive operation of creating a that/not that concept, like a binary opposition, is not so simple a mental movement as some might be led to believe simply because it appears so basic and clear. Perhaps this may seem a little more understandable when we recognize that these little computers we use in our homes are capable of such amazing processes, but all which occurs in what appears to be an inaccessible magic box -- especially to many who are in no way technically literate about such things.

What I wanted to try to bring out was how this is also embedded in the very fabric of our very complex culture, and is observable in aspects of our daily lives, once the tools for looking at how we conceptualize can be recognized. What I hoped to illustrate that by understanding it's fundamental place in Western society, that awareness can lead to, well, pretty much anywhere the rational/irrational thoughts can go, including the complicated process of how we codify and sanctify like the actions of those who can go off to do killing for us. We can see, perhaps, why such nonsensical behaviors as the rituals we put ourselves through also have a form that is intended to transform our thoughts about what we can and can't do. Thus the act of killing is "sanctified" by rituals that also use form "transform" the actors in the rituals of passage that usually begins a training, like a "boot camp," so that they can be "sanctioned" to keep the order we "value" in our socially constructed world, by doing acts none of us are normally legally sanctioned to do. It's part and parcel of any "suggestion" to "look and see what thought is doing" that spiritual thinkers like Jiddu Krishnamurti as anyone interested to do.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Moving Between Binary Oppositions

Can you hear that whirring, rattling sound?

That's the gerbils running frantically in their wheels.

We are the giants who've entered the room, they both fear us and want our attention, since we feed them. So they run, as fast as they can, desperate to get our attention, and to get away at the same time. The infernal binary opposition.

Strange animals.

Maybe all they really want is to get out of their cages.

The wheel turns and turns and they run and run, staying in one place -- a dead heat in a ferris wheel.

We don't need them, they need us. We can go our way, pay no heed. The rattling is not so loud as to disrupt.

All they leave us are their droppings in the tray under the cage. That's the genius of the wire boxes, the droppings fall through.

Still, I never liked cleaning up after them. That's why I never wanted one for a pet.

The problem for the spinning gerbil gets to be something like this:

Inside his little six sided binary opposition cage he's spinning that wheel with the circumference of the irrational number pi, and he's running and spinning so much he gets to thinking he's running things.

And then what do you get?

You get an a narcissistic, self absorbed authoritarian gerbil.

And the more you ignore him, the more he runs, thinking all the while he's running things.

Nature is gray scaled, Life can’t be reduced to deterministic numerical pattern and true knowledge is available only at death. Max's search can be seen as the saga of the 20th century that is doomed to fail since it uses the wrong tools. Other tools are available, they mustn’t necessarily be non-scientific, other logic systems, set of axioms and interpretive methods are possible. The story of movie Pi unfolds when we reveal the underlying binary oppositions that are woven through it...

But, aren't binary oppositions just the same as a dialectic?

A dialectic, when I think of it, is more of a spiral, a process. A binary opposition is essentially the two parts that may begin the dialectical process. So a dialectic would be a series of binary oppositions. A series of "thats" and a "not thats" beginning with a single "that." Computers use that simple binary component to compute with as well. It's really the fundamental basis for Western rational thinking. And it goes back at least as far as the Greeks. Understanding it can open many doors, or perhaps open the tops of boxes, the kinds of boxes dogma can create.

In observing how thought occurs in the mind, recognizing a binary opposition may merely be seen as an identification of the first steps in a rational thought process where one can identify, with concepts, a particular rational set: "that, not that."

Mathematically speaking, binary opposition is itself a concept that attempts to describe a raw, cognitive process that precedes culturally loaded values. "Views" are only one of the many possible concepts that can be included in a set of two -- that is, the conceptually recognized "that, not that" separated from a whole field of perceptions and distinguished. Noticing this is noticing our cognitive rational process at work in us.

Another set of concepts that can be used as cognitive tools for observing our inner process has been offered as "subliminal," "liminal," and "supraliminal." These are offered as an attempt to identify levels and types of consciousness. Supraliminal would be associated with processes that have more of an emphasis on abstract, rational thinking. This can be very complicated to describe, and a whole set of rational concepts have been developed to describe it.

What is meant by "liminal" consciousness, and then, "supraliminal" consciousness?

What makes them different? How does that difference effect a consciousness of environment, the moment, and an interactivity amongst humans in their cultural enclaves.

"Liminal state" is a rational effort to describe an awareness that is not "distorted" by the duality that rationality itself presents. With that as an understanding, then, liminality cannot be accessed directly through rational descriptions, only pointed to with it; the rational then is the supraliminal. A split that creates a seperation, a duality. Those who quest a vision are said to be questing to re-enter the liminal state, to be in a sense, non-dual. What that means conceptually is difficult to describe with words, but in essence, one lets go the rational supraliminal translation of perception and "enters" a state of consciousness where perception is "allowed" without judgement of what is, the mind will take care of that, consciousness does not have to be active to allow perceptions to occur. In that sense the assumptions that often precede behavior are not enacted. Let the people who do vision quests try to explain it:

The Western psyche has been split asunder by the dualistic assumptions inherent in our way of seeing the world. Foremost among these assumptions is that humans are separate from and superior to Nature. Many of us suffer from this fundamental distortion of reality. We have been uprooted from our original spiritual 'home' in Mother Earth. As a consequence, our hearts long for something but we're not quite sure what it is.

The School of Natural Wonder (SNW) seeks to mend this wound to our psyches by offering experiential, nature-based programs designed to help people connect deeply with the natural world, themselves, each other, and Spirit, however that may be experienced. It is believed that Nature, as the dwelling place of Spirit, is our first and foremost teacher. Because we are not separate from Nature, the rhythms, inhabitants, and relationships of the natural world mirror back to us aspects of our own souls.

Dwelling upon the Earth in a sacred way returns us to our true nature. Buried beneath the masks of civilization lies an indigenous soul within us longing to emerge into the light of the sun, to sing and dance with joy, to reclaim that which is wild, holy, and free within us.

Towards this end, SNW offers a sacred, supportive container in which participants can experience contemplative, participatory, and ceremonial ways of being in Nature. The basic model for all our programs is the Vision Quest, an ancient rite of passage, which we have adapted for modern use drawing on many wisdom traditions. The Vision Quest places participants alone and fasting within the womb of Mother Earth where they can give birth to the truth and beauty of their own souls.

The Vision Quest can serve different intentions. It is a powerful, ceremonial way to mark, honor and celebrate any life change, to discover one's own meanings and purpose, to seek renewal, to heal old wounds, to connect with Spirit. In addition, it is a particularly powerful vehicle for helping young people negotiate the momentous passage from childhood to adulthood.

Ultimately, for us, 'vision' comes in the moment that we are fully present to our inner life and the presence of the 'Other,' whether human, animal, tree, rock, river, wind…. With that vision we are transformed and the world as well.

We invite you to join us on one of our transformational programs, so that you may discover your true nature in the heart of Nature.

"Furthermore, we have not only to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination; we shall find a god; …where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world."

-Joseph Campbell

Anthropologist E. Richard Sorenson has made a study of liminal consciousness integral to his life's work. Liminal consciousness may not be easy for us to imagine, since we are enculturated from birth in a supraliminal cognitive environment. Nevertheless, here's one of Sorenson's efforts to describe it:

Liminal Awareness

Most of us know about subliminal awareness—the type of awareness lurking below actual consciousness that powerfully influences behavior. Freud brought it into the mainstream of Western thought through exhaustively detailed revelations of its effects on behavior. But few, including Freud, have spoken of liminal consciousness, which is therefore rarely recognized in modern scholarship as a separate type of awareness. Nonetheless, liminal awareness was the principal focus of mentality in the preconquest cultures contacted, whereas a supraliminal type that focuses logic on symbolic entities is the dominant form in postconquest societies.5

Liminally focused consciousness is very different from the supraliminal type that has almost entirely replaced it. Within the preconquest cultures observed basic sensibilities (such as of identity, number, space, and truth) shape up in unexpected ways. So does human integration. Preconquest groups are simultaneously individualistic and collective—traits immiscible and incompatible in modern thought and languages. This fusion of individuality and solidarity is another of the profound cognitive disparities that separate the preconquest and postconquest eras. It in part explains why even fundamental preconquest cultural traits are sometimes difficult to perceive, much less to appreciate, by postconquest peoples.

From the Latin language underlying our Western heritage we can understand that liminal awareness, by definition, occurs on the threshold of consciousness. This concept, though abstract, provides a useful term. In the real life of these preconquest people, feeling and awareness are focused on at-the-moment, point-blank sensory experience—as if the nub of life lay within that complex flux of collective sentient immediacy. Into that flux individuals thrust their inner thoughts and aspirations for all to see, appreciate, and relate to. This unabashed open honesty is the foundation on
which their highly honed integrative empathy and rapport become possible. When that openness gives way, empathy and rapport shrivel. Where deceit becomes a common practice, they disintegrate.

Where consciousness is focused within a flux of ongoing sentient awareness, experience cannot be clearly subdivided into separable components. With no clear elements to which logic can be applied, experience remains immune to syntax and formal logic within a kaleidoscopic sanctuary of non-discreteness. Nonetheless, preconquest life was reckoned sensibly—though seemingly intuitively.

With preconquest consciousness largely unencumbered by abstract concepts, it remained unconstrained by formal categories of value and cognition (i.e., rules and stable cognitive entities). Only when awareness shifted from liminal to supraliminal did the notion of 'correctness' become a matter of concern—e.g., behaving `properly,' having `right' answers, wearing `appropriate' clothes, etc. `Improper' aspirations, inclinations, and desires were then masked as people tried to measure up to the `proper' rule and standard. They used rhetoric and logic argumentatively with reference to norms, precedents, and agreements to gain and maintain dignity, status, and position. It was an altogether different world from that of the preconquest era where people freely spread their interests, feelings, and delights out for all to see and grasp as they lurched toward whatever delightful patterns of response they found attractive.

Sorenson also attempts to give a contrasting view of how a Westernized supraliminal consiousness transforms from a liminal consciousness, which is one way of saying what it is to be supraliminal:

The outstanding economic condition is absence of private property, which allows constant cooperative usage of the implements and materials of life for collective benefit. The human ecology engendered by the interaction of these outstanding conditions makes the forcing of others (including children) to one's will a disruptive and unwholesome practice. It was not seen.

Any form of subjugation, even those barriers to freedom imposed by private property, are the kiss of death to this type of life. Though durable and self-repairing in isolation, the unconditional open trust this way of life requires shrivels with alarming speed when faced with harsh emotions or coercion. Deceit, hostility, and selfishness when only episodic temporarily benumb intuitive rapport. When such conditions come to stay and no escape is possible, intuitive rapport disintegrates within a brutally disorienting period of existential trauma and anomie. With no other models about except those of conquerors, a `savage-savage' emerges from the wreckage of a once 'noble-savage'. These more brutal beings adjust to the postconquest milieu by adopting formal group identities. First they internalize various abstract ideas of space, boundary and kinship introduced by their conquerors. They then use them to anchor claims of their own to turf. They devise rules and customs that clearly identify them as a distinct people with formal rights. From this process different kinds of cultural elaboration emerge in separated regions—until a harsher level of conquest presses their uniqueness to extinction. Sorenson - Preconquest Consciousness

Imagine you have been walking and you come to an ocean for the first time. You are standing at the edge of the water, watching the waves roll in. You see and feel the water, it looks like a blue plain stretching off forever to the horizon, but you cannot walk on it. You have the beginnings of a perceptual "that, not that" right there.

That process can happen with no necessary hierarchical value, that is, no "one is better than the other" value; that value would come with another operation of thought in the cognitive phase once the "that, not that" has been conceptualized and separated out (or perhaps better put, as focused upon) from the whole of perceptual awareness.

Try another angle on this: Imagine that you live next to the ocean in a village and you have canoes and you fish, your village has names for all these things you live with every day, then one day you see something far out to sea, gradually, as it comes closer, it becomes clearer, but it resembles nothing familiar to you. You have no "idea" what it is, you just see a new form (some folks have even asked if the first natives to see a ship even "saw" anything at all), but you have no actual correlative words for the forms you see, because nothing in your environment has those characteristics.

After awhile this curious object that has your attention is near enough that you can see humans moving around, and something drops from the bow with a big splash with something attached that you recognize, a line (because you do make rope-like things to do all sorts of things to make your life possible, so you understand that concept), and then the as yet unidentified, unnamed thing stops moving. Perhaps it is changing shape and poles and sticks are being revealed as the large, whitish floppy things are shrunk up to the cross poles at the tops of the vertical poles. How would you make sense of that with your language and experience? Rationally, the process is identified, at least in Western Cultures, as a process of "that, not thats" working together.

Humans are born into a world with a language that already has much historical residue of meanings in place, where conceptual identifications of "that, not thats" are are shared in the organic process of environmental perceptual recognition and language development from birth, and I would correlate that with your notion of "ethnic programming."

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Binary Oppositions and Pi.

Gerbil Pi

Inside, those little wire boxes

with little wire wheels,

circumferences, the irrational number pi,

befuddling in never-creations,

go purveyors of binary opposition.

Round and around they go!

A world of circles,

and they never, ever "know"!

rén 10/09/07

Occasionally I'll introduce the term "binary opposition" into my discussions, and I thought it might be worth some effort to explain what the term signifies to me, and why understanding it might be worth anyone's while. So, for anyone curious about what can be a fascinating topic -- at least for epistemologists -- this is an effort to put together a more concise explanation of the place of this concept in our globalized Euro-American world.

I feel it's worth the effort, because binary opposites have so much to do with the way we organize our categorized internal worlds, and the results of that internal form in both the form of our very way of life, and the way political discussions get folded into repetitive opposing sided boxes, like copied suburban houses in those ticky tacky housing developments surrounding our cities these days.

Think of it... binary opposites are easy to find, we all use them in our conceptual thought process, and sometimes the very way we value our thoughts is based on preformed hierarchical patterns that set the stage and create a momentum that almost pre programs where a discussion will go, and at another level, where societal behavior may go. Some of the first to do this in any codified "scientific" way were a group of philosophers and social scientists known as "Structuralists." In recognizing this pattern and it's more or less ontological force, some explorative folks have begun to try to figure out whether it's necessary that the structure of language and thought be so rigidly predictable, or if there might be some strategies for breaking out of what might well be called "the box."

So, then, "binary opposition" is really a simple and elegant abstract concept. I first encountered the term somewhere in my studies of philosophy, logic, and anthropology -- it's been so long I can't remember precisely where. Following you will find a couple of very brief descriptions from Internet sites, there are many sites that discuss it, if one simply does a search, so for that one poor misbegotten soul who follows me around, there's really no need to do that, pointing to my own binary oppositions, one can simply learn to observe one's own:

A binary opposition is a pair of opposites, thought by the Structuralists to powerfully form and organize human thought and culture. Some are commonsense, such as raw vs cooked; however, many such oppositions imply or are used in such a way that privileges one of the terms of the opposition, creating a hierarchy. This can be seen in English with white and black, where black is used as a sign of darkness, danger, evil, etc., and white as purity, goodness, and so on. Another example of a contested binary opposition is rational vs emotional, in which the rational term is usually privileged and associated with men, while emotional is inferior and associated with women. The list goes on. Deconstruction sometimes involves identifying the oppositions working in a text and then demonstrating how the text itself undermines the hierarchy implied or asserted by the opposition.




This is a sophisticated but important idea that will help you understand how ideas and meanings are being shaped, created or reinforced in a text. It is 'a theory of meaning' and an idea that can be applied to all texts; it is especially useful when analysing poetry where meaning has been 'compressed' into a very few words.

In the mid-20th century, two major European academic thinkers, Claude Levi Strauss and Roland Barthes, had the important insight that the way we understand certain words depends not so much on any meaning they themselves directly contain, but much more by our understanding of the difference between the word and its 'opposite' or, as they called it 'binary opposite'. They realised that words merely act as symbols for society's ideas and that the meaning of words, therefore, was a relationship rather than a fixed thing: a relationship between opposing ideas.

For example, our understanding of the word 'coward' surely depends on the difference between that word and its opposing idea, that of a 'hero' (and to complicate matters further, a moment's thought should alert you to the fact that interpreting words such as 'hero' and 'coward' is itself much more to do with what our society or culture attributes to such words than any meaning the words themselves might actually contain).

Other oppositions that should help you understand the idea are the youth/age binary, the masculinity/femininity, the good/evil binary, and so on. Barthes and Levi-Strauss noticed another important feature of these 'binary opposites': that one side of the binary pair is always seen by a particular society or culture as more valued over the other.

When studying any kind of literature, it is worth looking for the ways in which layers of meaning are being created, shaped or reinforced by this sense of 'binary opposition'. In Simon Armitage's poetry, for instance, you might notice the binary opposition he creates between the ideas we associate or attach to 'sincerity', 'genuineness' and 'truth' because of our culture's utter dislike of their binary opposites, 'insincerity' and 'lies'.

Recognising such binaries can open up the ideas the writer is trying to express. Look out for these oppositions as they can allow a deep understanding of what is happening in the text as well as alerting you to the "BIG PICTURE" (see below) - what it is all about.

(here's the:)


Whenever you need to discuss aspects of a text, remember never to skim read it. Before you can write in any meaningful way about it you will need to have grasped its big picture. This means gaining an understanding of exactly what it is about, who it was written for and why it was written.

You will also need to consider what might have motivated the writer to write the text and the circumstances under which it was created, that is aspects of its writer's context. It can also be important to take account of genre conventions and expectations as well as aspects of the reader's context as interest and interpretation can sometimes vary according to the reader's own situation.

With these details you can then open your answer by creating an effective overview of the text - of its content, genre, audience and purpose. Details of its style are left for the remainder of your answer.

It is an unfortunate fact that each year many students give shallow answers in exams that show they have skim read their texts. The moral of this tale: don't be a skim reader!

So the question really is, why take notice of binary oppositions? One can find many reasons to take notice, once onto them. Think of our fearless leaders taking us to war against those evil doers. Yes, good and evil. It can drive even the most secure nations with the biggest military forces into a frenzy of strange behaviors.

Those of us who are intrigued by the intellectual efforts of trying to get out of the box of our conceptual thinking, are often drawn to it because of the very social paradigms of hierarchy we find ourselves in, ultimately derived from valuing one element in a starting binary over another, valued elements which themselves accumulate to set up conditions of authority, all based on on a progression beginning with that first step of judging a better and a not better, a that and a not that. Even our computers work in that simple way to create their complexity of computation.

Sort of reminds me of Joseph Tainter's Collapse of Complex Societies. Societies can over burden their energy resources because they become excessively complex, that complexity results in social hierarchies, and the very structure of hierarchies require extra energy to maintain. Think of the cost of the middle management in a corporation where the management is not directly involved in its production capacities. In order to pay for its own maintenance, the middle management must use its intelligence to manage production in order to achieve an excess margin of production. It's because of those sorts of margin production stresses that societies such as the Roman Empire collapsed.

Some are comfortable with authoritarian structures that go with complexity, comfortable with their promises of daddy state security, or whatever... and some of us aren't, that's about all I will offer on that at the moment. Just wanted to mention it, because authoritarianism is a subject that runs through my ideas as an ongoing subtext, and I will be bringing it up from time to time. Authoritarianism has a number of features that I consider problematic, not the least of which is my personal sense of abhorrence of authorities.

To be interested in this, it's important to recognize the tendency of that interest to be based on cognitive acts of judgment. I put it that way because I want to call attention to the simple feature that making a judgments is an action, a cognitive, abstract action. One does not have to make a judgment, judgment can be suspended and one can be in an open state of observation and wondering, even more actively, questioning. Just call attention to that little innocuous action of thought, a judgment, harmless seeming, for the most part, even sometimes necessary when observing that a rhinoceros is charging at you on the open plain. So simply be aware that it's a part of our basic biological make up even. That's important to be aware of because distinguishing and judging is at the very beginning of the binary process itself! And if we are trying to understand how we trap ourselves in boxes made up of the binary process, then it's important to be aware of how it works, and where it begins.

Do that without forming a judgment, if possible -- and that will involve doing it without attaching a value to it -- and then just observe where it goes; that's the best I can offer.

When I call attention to a binary opposition, that's essentially what I'm doing, just noticing the tendency, and noticing that a valuing may be taking place, and that from there, a process unfolds based on that primary paradigm one sets up in one's own thought process. Notice, too, that this is a phenomenological experience. No one can know if you are aware of the process going on or not. That's why it's worth calling attention to it. It can be like a shared signal that people can recognize. Or like turning on a flashlight in the dark.

Now, why would that be helpful?

How about we introduce an Irrational Concept for starters?

Since this basic structural duality can be so helpful in understanding our very universal human interest in mythology, literature, and metaphor, I'd like to start with something both literary and metaphorical. The movie Pi, not the least because I enjoyed the movie immensely, but also because I found a nifty site that actually deals with the issue using the movie as it's paradigmatic focus to discuss the deeper implications of binary oppositions.

(Click on the picture of Max below, it's a link to the site).

Pi (see Pi the movie) is not, as most critics claim, a schizophrenic science-fiction thriller.

We refuse to fall into the naive pseudo-psychological interoperation but it’s is a very important movie to be with us, while we rush to the next millenium.

We also attempt to say meaningful things about the movie without categorizing it as others do, in the science-fiction genre, to be more precise, we actually categorize it for the sake of decategorization.

As Sol tells us in the movie itself, we filter everything through our obsessions and concepts. In this text, we filter Pi with some of the concepts found in postmodern and fuzzy logic theories, and then we attempt to go further…

The story of Pi can be told through deconstruction of its content into binary oppositions, and by defusing these oppositions using a critical tool we suggest in the text - fuzzy deconstruction.

We claim that it is possible to continue where deconstruction stops in silence. We use 'Pi' to demonstrate this. This will hopefully allow you to watch (or re-watch) it from a slightly different perspective…

End of part I.