Long time ago

The last time I wrote in this blog was a long time ago. I was living in a different place, had a different job, had different concerns, and had more free time. Certainly I was a different me. Where has the muse been for the past five years?  Apparently it was not just a just a room of her own that Virginia Woolf needed, as I have had a room of my own.  However, her writing room was quite nice. One can see the muses peeking in the door. The writing cottage (hum, not just a room, but an entire cottage) is inspiring.


I really did try hard to raise my children to be socially skilled, and in that I was pretty successful. It is sort of a miracle that they are so very successful, as I am not -- my father did not like people around the house, so we never had to learn how to listen to or charm visitors. Anyway, my adult children are much more socially skilled than I and part of their skill lies in the fact that they like people and enjoy being with them. Another part of their skill lies in the fact that they are not selfish or self-centered and they work to let others know they are important. In other words, they let other people talk and they are good listeners. Where I might have failed, however, was in failing to teach some non-skeptical acceptance of pronouncements (i.e., mine). If I say something they think is stupid, they let me know one way or another -- even if (especially if) I am only saying it to try to maneuver their behavior in a certain direction. I also might have created some problems when I gave them adult knowledge at young ages. I had inherited this fascination with knowledge from generations of my ancestors and I passed it on. Some of the things I taught them have proved to be helpful -- mathematics (e.g., algebra, prime numbers), languages, cooking, the Greek myths, plants and animals of the Andes, coast and rainforest, and prehistoric cultures of Ecuador and Colombia. However, sometimes knowledge can be problematic. Their knowledge often did not fit comfortably with widely held practices. I had learned vast amounts of odd bits of knowledge, but as I never talked, never having social skills, no one ever found out (and that applies to the present time). One evening I found my young daughter in the front yard of our Ecuadorian home, kneeling in the moonlight. I asked her what she was doing. She, in what made sense, probably, in the prehistoric Ecuador that we had studied, said she was praying to the god of the moon. That practice/belief was not something, however, that probably went over well in show-and-tell at the Deutsche Schule, where Catholicism and Luteranism were widely accepted -- especially in the 1-4 grades. My only major regret, as she thankfully was not thrown out of the school, is that I did not ask, or else I do not remember, what she was talking to the God of the Moon about, what changes she might have wanted to bring about. Another time she wrote a book on reproduction that was pretty darn graphic. She may have had a bit too much book knowledge in what I now think may have been way too soon, and in a place where such knowledge in a young child would have been a bit shocking. Again, she was never thrown out of that school. When they were born I had no Dr. Spock. I remember coming home from the hospital and thinking, with some desperation, what do I do with this baby? I had never truly even babysat for an infant. Certainly I had never given them a bath (did they need them, I wondered), or had to deal with colic or a baby who never slept (and still does not sleep) or who vomited when she was moved from breast milk to bottle milk. The only book I had was on primate mothers and their babies and from that book I was able to draw lessons (no, not on sex education) on demand feeding, on holding babies much of the time and keeping them near you, on closely monitoring their development. While mothering in humans is or can be culturally complex, there might be some simple lessons to seem to work well in caring for infants. They did learn they were loved, unconditionally. They, in turn, love unconditionally. My daughter, in particular, has always been generous and accepting. She sees people, not in terms of their possessions or SES status, but in terms of who they are in their hearts (yes, I know that is a metaphor). She did notice that they had less than she did and generally from the time she was quite small gave away her toys to try to bring into equal number the relative quantity of possessions.


Election Time: The best of times, the worst of times

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities


Art and symbol

My friend Christy, who lives in the Galapagos and has time to think!!!!, has tweaked me enough, finally awakening me from my stupor so that I try to articulate some coherent thoughts (if they are not coherent, she will jump on any failure in logic like a ton of proverbial bricks). A number of problems, I would argue, have prevented us from understanding visual art, including beads (all of the arts, but I do not have enough energy right now to take on all the arts).

The first problem, as Count Leo Tolstoy claimed -- and he wrote quite insightfully about visual art -- is a failure to define the term. At one time, definition was a first step of the scientific method. No longer. I cannot remember the last time I read anything in the scientific literature -- from biology to social science that provided a theoretical definition. Sad, but true.

A second problem is all the BS -- academic hyperbole -- that obscures the phenomenon and makes understanding difficult if not impossible. One element of the BS/AH is the focus on symbol -- with a failure to define what a symbol is. The argument then becomes when humans first began to symbolize -- at what point (exact day and time) did our minds become capable of symbolizing?

An additional problem is the aesthetic emotion. How can we identify in the prehistory record whether or not the cave person got a thrill looking at the red ochre. I am not even sure we know what the emotion is. Yes, Christy, I am ready for your descriptions of aesthetic thrill. I wonder how it differs from other thrills in life -- how or if? The large human brain has been around a long time -- how do we know when those presumed emotions kicked in?

This brings me to an additional problem, which is testability. We need to stick to hypotheses we can test. It is not possible to know either when the mind began to symbolize or whether or not an item is symbolic. It is a waste of time to talk about such things, at least when we assume we are increasing knowledge and not just listening to the flow of words from our own mouth.

Another problem is that we need to recognize (and would if we defined terms) that symbols are learned -- to the extent they are cultural, symbols involve an association of a spoken explanation (that stands for X) with an object. Culture, remember, is shared--it is not individualistic behavior. We cannot know whether something was symbolic -- had a learned association -- when looking at the prehistoric record.

One thing we can appreciate in both the ethnographic and prehistoric records is replication/copying. In my book I wrote that a minimal difference -- or major one, Christy -- is that so called animal art -- draping vines around one's neck (No, Christy, I did not call this visual art, other art philosophers do) is not noticed and it is not replicated. Surely replication is important and surely it suggests a social element to the object, as we learn from others, generally by watching them as they do something. It also could be argued that replication implies intergenerational ties. To the extent that humans lived in small groups of kin, they learned from kin. The process of learning the techniques of art provided the opportunity for building social relationship and learning (and teaching) the history of one's people. This is why I argue that the process of learning to make art is possibly more important socially -- and we are a social spec ies -- than the art object.