Cat's cradle

The more I read about other cultures, the more the uncomfortable conviction grows in my mind that the history of human civilization exemplifies no “upward” progress, but instead progressive disintegration and alienation from the primordial wellsprings of life and spirit. Think, for example, of the supposed conflict between freedom and determinism that so distorts our ability to respond meaningfully to things, to events, to human and non-human others. And such relief one feels, simply to realize that, as phenomenologist Alfonso Lingis points out, “the movements of perception – both the controlled perception which is scientific observation, and the continual perception which is the scientist’s, and our, life – are neither reactions nor adjustments nor intentional and teleological acts, but responses (The Imperative, Indiana U.P., 1998).”

Every culture exhibits ethnocentricity to some extent. For centuries Europeans have described non-Western ways of thought according to a hierarchy that enshrined their own mastery of mechanical technique as the apex to which all others should strive. Thus, cultures appear more or less primitive according to how closely they resemble us (ignoring the fact that such resemblance, in the case of those most like Europeans – Chinese, Arabs, Indians – may derive simply from past culture-sharing). But I suspect that a more accurate understanding of historical evolution would depict cultural preferences as a series of trade-offs. The economic energy generated by the freeing of Western European peasants 1000 years ago may have been largely responsible for the material success and eventual global domination of European civilization. But the vast majority of us are still in thrall to a worldview that seems simplistic, even childish compared to what anthropologists have documented among peoples for whom the alienation of individual from “environment” was nowhere near so complete.

The problem is that civilizations project their social orders upon the cosmos. East and West, from ancient Egypt onward, the logic of empire dictated – or “overcoded,” as Deleuze and Guattari would say – a logic of unities (Dao, Brahman, God, Logos). Only now do we begin to suspect that the true relationships between such binary opponents as freedom and determinism, one and many, subject and object only seem paradoxical as a consequence of the radical attenuation of vital perceptual faculties and the parallel loss of conceptual and linguistic tools.

Since I have already referenced Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, I might as well go ahead and quote them at length. (They are two more of those thinkers, like Paul Feyerabend, whom I have been consciously avoiding because I would like to (re)discover what they uncovered on my own, though the reading of anthropology, history, ecology, poetry.) In A Thousand Plateaus (University of Minnesota Press, 1987) they developed the idea of the rhizome – which for me evokes primarily the fungal kingdom (but more on that some other time) – as a better model for material reality:

“[U]nlike trees or their roots, the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states. The rhizome is reducible neither to the One nor the multiple. It is not the One that becomes Two or even directly three, four, five, etc. It is not a multiple derived from the One, or to which One is added (n + 1). It is composed not of units but of dimensions, or rather directions in motion. It has neither beginning nor end, but always a middle [milieu] from which it grows and overspills . . . When a multiplicity of this kind changes dimensions, it necessarily changes in nature as well, undergoing a metamorphosis. Unlike a structure, which is defined by a set of points and positions, with binary relations between the points and biunivocal relationships between the positions, the rhizome is made up only of lines . . . ”

The lines of a dance, of a flock of blackbirds wheeling and swirling. The barely fathomable lineaments of coevolution, which is to say, being/becoming as a kind of meshwork (net, internet) of mutual responses, dimension upon dimension. The lines of a string game elaborated to fill the long darkness of the Arctic winter with the mystery and wonder of transformation, a cat’s cradle. Reading Tom Lowenstein’s Ancient Land: Sacred Whale (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1993) last night, I was struck by his description of this game in a lengthy footnote. Perhaps inevitably, as a Westerner, he begins with the apparent essence:

“First, there are the figures themselves whose construction was in harmony with Inuit knowledge of anatomy and the way people made their weapons and equipment. This knowledge of articulation was of special importance to Tikigaq hunters. The composite structure of weapons, traps, and much ritual equipment was modeled on the way that bodies were jointed. Parallel to this and to string-game symbolism were the etched magical diagrams that showed animal silhouettes filled with ‘X-ray’ skeletons or a horizontal ‘lifeline’ which represented a ‘string’ of the soul element.”

Incidentally, this same motif of the lifeline occurs in the traditional pottery designs of Zuni Pueblo; much else that is “Deleuze-Guattarian” could be pointed out among the Pueblo and other agriculturists. A rhizomatic understanding of space-time, however it may be symbolized, is not particular to, say, a hunting-gathering culture as opposed to an agricultural-gathering-hunting one. But to resume:

“An important three-dimensional version of these allusions to body and spirit was the string game – cat’s cradle – which was often accompanied by songs and stories. The medium was a loop of sinew or skin cord whose patterns were developed in two phases. The first was a slow, deliberate weaving in which the outer frame was constructed. This was followed by a series of manipulations which filled the structure with lines, rings, knots and nooses, each part of which was sufficiently tense to stay in place, while flexible enough for the next transformation.

“Flicking and scrambling through each minutely controlled sequence, the fingers created a series of narrative concatenations. Each movement of the diagram had its moment of identity. The forms that hopped, twitched and ran up and down the frame were semi-abstract narrative animations. Most string games showed animals in archetypal, often comic situations . . . Mythic archetypes were guyed and inverted . . .

“But play was brief and, though often technically spectacular, somewhat casual. Like animals that pop up and then vanish, string-game creatures briefly came to life and then melted away . . .

“[W]hether in the hand of a child or an adult the string game was a shamanistic process. Just as shamans constructed magical familiars from dead material and sang life into it as they went, so string-game players hummed over their making, and a creative and destructive process was enacted.”

Barbara G. Myerhoff (Peyote Hunt: The Sacred Journey of the Huichol Indians, Cornell U.P., 1974) offers a convenient summary of anthropological thinking about so-called primitive thought: that the “savage mind” (Levi-Strauss) embraces a “logic of participation” (Levy-Bruhl) whereby human emotional states and/or moral conditions are believed to influence natural events (Evans-Pritchard). I wonder if these hyphenated thinkers would have called the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi and the great literary prophets of the Hebrew Bible (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, etc.) primitive? Like most ancient writers outside the Greco-Roman orbit, their “savage minds” too assumed that moral choices had natural repercussions. By contrast, the binary logic of Aristotle is predicated upon the abstraction of human thinker/actor from matter/matrix. Since Parmenides our thinkers have seen no delicate meshwork but at best the jealous Hephaestus’ cunning trap, at worst the Gordian knot, an atom to be split. The natural repercussions are not far to seek in a world that has been rent limb from limb. Grasping for “primitive” (i.e., originary) concepts, we speak in hushed terms of holocaust, the burnt offering. In fact, this is a complete misapprehension of the “logic of participation” that guides, too, the priestly knife. An offering to what or whom, save our own hubris?

Influenced by Deleuze and Guattari, I am thinking this morning that the logic of participation is still very much with us, and not merely among artists and mystics. I am constantly encountering people – often those with little formal education – in whom mind, body and world are highly congruent and interlinked. They are hunters, homemakers, mechanics, bus drivers. Whether taciturn or loquacious, they have a way with words – which is to say, with the manipulation of the loose and shifting knots we call symbols.

The difference is that some cultures actively encourage this way of knowing, whereas we actively seek to suppress it through “education.” I was fascinated to learn that one of the traditional practices still prevalent among Bering Sea Inuit, Inupiak and Yupiit is sand-drawing by children – specifically girls. It used to be that their fathers would make elaborately carved ivory “storyknives” or yaaruin for their daughters; today, metal tableknives have largely taken their place. The girls use standard sets of symbols, which vary from village to village, to illustrate imaginative stories upon a canvas of scraped mud or wet sand. (The book Inua: Spirit world of the Bering Sea Eskimo, Willaim W. Fitzhugh and Susan Kaplan, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982, shows examples of storyknives and a reproduction of a traditional knifestory.) The point is that, despite what Lowenstein says about people believing that the myths were true (well, they certainly wouldn’t have viewed them as “archetypes”!) children – and especially girls – were encouraged to play with them, to alter the details if necessary, even to completely subvert them.

Why girls? I imagine this relates to the once-pivotal importance of the female shaman, as the compass point around which her shaman-husband circled in his search for game animals. During the Tikigaq whale hunt, for example, her participation was seen is pivotal: the whole time the men are out, she must remain in a state of apparent inactivity – actually meditation, though the anthropologists’ informants were circumspect about the details – and in some sense she even becomes the whale whom the men seek. This is the logic of participation par excellance.

For both boys and girls, in all societies where survival is closely linked to knowledge of the land/water, the crucial thing is to develop mental maps – in the broadest sense of the term – that are both extremely accurate and highly adaptable. If the various Inuit peoples seem extraordinary to us in this regard, it is simply because the conditions under which they lived were so extreme. Their “stone age” technology was sophisticated, yes, but it didn’t end with merely physical tools. The multiple directives Lingis enumerates – “in the night, the elements, the home, the alien spaces, the carpentry of things, the halos and reflections of things, the faces of fellow humans, and death” – could not be escaped by a permanent flight into hedonism or asceticism, though both were honored in their season.

“Make a map,” our guides Deleuze and Guattari advise, “not a tracing.” This is the sort of stuff one has to read slowly, several times, to fully digest:

“Make a map, not a tracing. The orchid does not reproduce the tracing of the wasp; it forms a map with the wasp, in a rhizome. What distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real. The map does not reproduce an unconscious closed in upon itself; it constructs the unconscious. It fosters connections between fields, the removal of blockages on bodies without organs, the maximum opening of bodies without organs onto a plane of consistency. It is itself a part of the rhizome. The map is open and connectable in all of its dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification. It can be torn, reversed, adapted to any kind of mounting, reworked by an individual, group, or social formation. It can be drawn on a wall, conceived of as a work of art, constructed as a political action or as a meditation. . . . A map has multiple entryways, as opposed to the tracing, which always comes back ‘to the same.’ the map has to do with performance, whereas the tracing always involves an alleged ‘competence.'”

I wondering now, quite irrelevantly, about the cat in the cat’s cradle. Given that, in pre-modern European thought, the housecat is perhaps the most common familiar or spirit-guardian, I wonder if we can see in our own versions of the string game some repressed memory of shape-shifting, the shamanic dance of nodes across a rhizomatic field?

Update: Thanks to my brother Mark (a Deleuzian scholar and geographer) for reading this over and reassuring me that I am on the right track! I changed only my initial description of the D-G rhizome from “analogy” to “model.” Mark commented (in part) “you can never over-literalize DG; only misconstrue. Most people’s problem is that they assume DG are simply constructing Derridean castles in the air in some sort of cosmic jack-off; they totally miss the fact that DG are attempting to describe and explain how the world/cosmos works. They miss this because to them, the world outside human perception is unattainable, ‘socially constructed’, the ‘Real’ (Lacan), etc., etc. So there
are loads of folks out there trying to playfully use ‘deterritorialization,’ trying to be cute, not understanding that this is a term with a precise definition–a term describing a ‘function’ (actually something more than that, because ‘function’ evokes narrow-minded functionalism).”

I think this is definitely a case of “the less you know in advance, the better!” In response to my defense of using D-G (not to be confused with G-D) for aid in describing intuitions/manipulations of supra-mundane realities (in which they did not believe), Mark replied just now that “the mix-and-match, experimentation (though there’s more of this in Anti-Oedipus) is in the spirit of enjoying and using DG. They are interested in affects, not essences–if Lingis and DG work for you, then they are happy. In DG’s world, what a thing does/is capable of is what determines what it ‘is.'”

I like to think of philosophy like this (phenomenology, broadly defined) as “common sense raised to a higher power.” (But if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably already knew that.) Metaphysics is only interesting to me to the extent that it is useful. And good myths are interesting not as Jungian archetypes but because they are things of beauty. Myths are true in the exact same way that poems are true.

Cross-references: Qarrtsiluni and Building Dwelling Eating.

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