WELCOME TO INCLUSORIUM.
Inclusorium is a way for me to step out of my chosen profession (PhD in Nutrition with 30+ years of practicing and teaching and founder of Buck Levin Publications) and try to make sense of the cultural events that are part of my life. Frequently running through my mind when I think about culture events are classes that I took in archetypal psychology with James Hillman at Yale; in phenomenology with John Sallis at Duquesne; and in Analysis of Ideas with Leon Kass and Eugene Gendlin at Chicago. The 3-step introduction below describes my basic frame of reference. It’s a somewhat peculiar vantage point because it is based on the peculiar relationship between experience and ideas.
STEP 1: CULTURAL THINKING
The relationship between experience and ideas is impossible to describe without stepping back and looking from some broad context – the world at large, social interactions, etc. “Culture” is the context that I like best for this purpose. Most scholarly writings about it compare culture with civilization, based on the very different language roots of these words. “Culture” comes from the Latin cultivatus – the past participle of the verb colere meaning “to care for.” In terms of its word root, culture is what people care about. Civilization is derived from the Latin civilis, meaning “related to public life.” (Civics, civility, citizenship, and city are all derived from this same root.) Civilization is how people engage publicly – how they actually interact and do stuff. In keeping with these word roots, sociologists often describe civilization as the stuff of a society and culture as its spirit. Others describe culture as the mind of a society and civilization as its body.
I prefer this description of culture as the mind of a society because it overlaps with the phrase “cultural thinking.” This is a phrase that I use throughout Inclusorium, and even though it sounds high-minded, it is not. As an example of cultural thinking and the way it gets woven into everyday life, take current drinking laws in Connecticut and Alabama:
Connecticut: In this state, persons under the age of 21 are currently allowed to consume alcohol in any commercial establishment (or in a private home or club) in the presence of a parent/guardian who has given consent.
Alabama: in this state, persons under the age of 21 are currently not allowed to consume alcohol in any amount at any time for any reason.
It is easy enough to describe these circumstances in terms of civics: legislatures in two states establish different age of consumption laws. One law provides no exceptions whatsoever and another law providing broad exceptions. Nothing complicated here.
But it is far more difficult to describe these circumstances in terms of culture: what is it that legislators cared about when they adopted these laws? What was on their collective minds? It is hard for me to imagine how any group of legislators could fail to concern themselves with individual and community safety, family relationships, mechanisms of enforcement, and other areas of potential impact from alcohol use. But if all legislators concern themselves with the exact same things, how is it that the ones in Alabama and Connecticut come up with such different pieces of legislation?
Here is where the phrase “cultural thinking” is helpful. This phrase can be used as a framework to zero in on different collective ways of thinking – different pathways of thought within the mind of a single culture or within the minds of multiple cultures. Legislators in Alabama and Connecticut might fully agree on what matters, yet still proceed to survey the landscape of alcohol use differently – setting different reference points, taking measurements from different angles, and leaving themselves with different boundaries of fittingness and different determinations of appropriateness. To get less metaphorical and more tangible here, consider the following historical snippets:
As far back as the late 1800’s, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) had a strong presence in Alabama. Together with the Anti-Saloon League (ASL), the WCTU was influential in pressuring the Alabama state legislature to adopt legislation in 1907 prohibiting statewide production and distribution of alcohol. (And at the same time, Alabama was one of six states (the other were North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi) to eventually develop the largest number of illegal whiskey stills in the country.) Now contrast these snippets from the state history of Alabama with snippets from the state history of Connecticut. In 1919, Connecticut became one of two states that refused to ratify the Prohibition Amendment to the Constitution. (The 18th or “Prohibition” Amendment prohibited manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.”) Not only did the Connecticut legislature refuse to ratify the 18th Amendment: according to an article in the Bridgeport Telegram (published in Bridgeport, Connecticut) 1,500 saloons remained in operation throughout the state in 1921.
These historical snippets do not explain present-day differences in age of consumption laws, nor do they establish any causal connection between present-days laws and the history of the Temperance Movement. Moreover, they are not “facts” that legislators consider when drafting laws. When it comes to “facts,” what legislators consider are statistics like underage DUI; alcohol-related underage emergency room admissions; and the likelihood of later life alcohol abuse given underage consumption. But members of state congresses also need some way of thinking about these statistics, and this way of thinking is likely to involve many cultural dimensions. In turn, these cultural dimensions are likely to include some level of awareness on the legislators’ part about their state’s position on prohibition a century earlier, and the extent to which alcohol consumption had remained “out in the open” in their state during that time. Cultural thinking is the phrase that I use throughout Inclusorium to refer to this type of background awareness – the spirit of what people care about, however hidden from full view. This completes Step 1.
Next up in this 3-step explanation of Inclusorium is the “currency” of cultural thinking – the stuff that circulates around and allows transactions to take place in the realm of cultural thought.
STEP 2: EXPERIENCE, IDEAS, AND SUPERVILLAINS
My tagline for Inclusorium – “how ideas shape our experience of events” is my way of calling attention to the “currency” of cultural thinking: experience, ideas, and the peculiar relationship between them.
To get things going in culture, we need experiences that matter to us. (Step 1 focused on this process.) The word “cultural” in “cultural thinking” points to experiences that people care about. And while this next statement may seem glaringly obvious, the word “thinking” in “cultural thinking” also points us to something in particular: ideas. To get things going in thought, we need ideas. Putting the two together, what we need to get things going in cultural thinking is both, and that is why I think of them as the “currency” of cultural thinking. It’s not their combined presence in cultural thinking, however, that makes them its currency. It’s the unusual way they get combined.
The easiest to describe how experience and ideas get combined in cultural thinking is to look at what happens when the two get detached from each other. The word “detached” makes this process sound mechanical and perfunctory. But the separation of these two components in cultural thinking is a big deal that can have a disruptive impact on many aspects of culture. Few forces are able to yank experience and ideas apart in this way, which is why I like to refer any force of this kind as a “supervillain.”
The first supervillain whose actions can disrupt and distort cultural thinking is Brainiac – the extraterrestrial cyborg with a twelfth-level effector brain:
The second supervillain who can accomplish this task is Mastermind – the human mutant with the psionic ability to take all five senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste) and destroy their reliability:
These two supervillains embody the two basic types of disruption that can take place in cultural thinking when the bond between experience and ideas gets undone.
THE BRAINIAC MANEUVER
At the Brainiac end of the spectrum, the bond between experience and ideas get undone through a walling off ideas. The Brainiac maneuver treats ideas like abstractions trapped inside our head. Here is how it works:
Let’s say that we notice a white piece of paper, a white piece of chalk, a white cloud, and some white snow. Unless we are drunk, drugged, or otherwise incapacitated, we trust our visual experience and consider ourselves to have recognized four unmistakable, real-life things. We go on to describe these real-life things as having an attribute called “whiteness.” All four things have whiteness in common. Not for a second do we believe that “whiteness” is some fifth thing that exists in real life in the same way as the paper and chalk and clouds and snow. We consider whiteness to be an abstract concept – an idea that floats around in our head. We also consider it helpful for this idea of whiteness to float around there, because it allows us identify a unique attribute that is shared by the paper, chalk, snow and cloud.
What gets created through this Brainiac maneuver, however, is an irreparable rift between experience and ideas. Visual experience gets stranded on one side of the rift, where it operates in the real world and lets us identify real things in it. What gets stranded on the other side of the rift are ideas, which are only permitted to exist inside of our head as abstractions.
In some later comic book descriptions of this supervillain, Brainiac is said to possess a brain that has the processing ability of octodecillions of beings combined. (An octodecillion is 10 to the 57th power, that is, 10 x 10 x 10 some 57 times.) So vast is Brainiac’s comprehension of ideas -including ideas in virtually all theoretical and applied sciences – that his superpowers come to include molecular manipulation, power nullification, reality warping, and entropy absorption. Brainiac’s brainpower is virtually limitless. His intellectual ability goes far beyond – but still falls into the continuum of – “intellectual prowess” and “monumental insight” and “ingenious theorizing” that we might glorify in each other. On the surface, each of these descriptions appears to laud the magnificence of ideas and intellect. But at its core, the Brainiac maneuver turns ideas into far less than they by stripping them of their real-world privileges. It severs their connection to experience by locking them up within the solitary confines of the mind.
THE MASTERMIND MANEUVER
At the Mastermind end of the spectrum, the bond between experience and ideas gets undone through use of an inverse approach. Rather than turning ideas into something less than they are, the Mastermind maneuver turns experience into something less than it is. Despite the unfortunate naming of this supervillain, Mastermind’s evil genius does not involve manipulation of ideas but manipulation of perceptual experience. Mastermind can take any sight or sound (or taste or smell our touch) and cause it to appear at any time and in any place. In a more complicated but similar way, Mastermind can also make himself look and feel like whatever person or physical object he chooses.
What gets undermined in the Mastermind maneuver is not the nature of ideas but the nature of perceptual experience. In the perceptual experience of humans, there is always a before and after, a “carry-over” in time and space. Without it, perceptual experience falls apart. If I can borrow an example from one of my teachers at the University of Chicago, Eugene Gendlin (1926-2017): What do you do if you are walking along and you get hit on the shoulder by a rock? You look around to see who threw it. If no one is there, you look up to see how it fell. You don’t look around or look up out of rank stupidity or cluelessness. The rock had to have fallen or get thrown. Rocks don’t pop up out of nothingness and strike you on the shoulder.
The experience of getting struck on the shoulder by a rock – like any experience – makes sense to us because it takes place within some context. All experiences are nestled into the world, woven into a matrix of already-connected events. Stripped of their context, experiences become senseless. The Mastermind maneuver relies on precisely this outcome. It’s an approach that takes everything we see, hear, smell, taste, or touch and renders it senseless by removing it from the flow of time and space.
Two supervillains and two ways of breaking the bond between experience and ideas: the Brainiac maneuver, which locks ideas inside the brain and takes away their real-world privileges, and the Mastermind maneuver, which yanks experience from its context to render it senseless. This completes Step 2.
STEP 3: OUTMANEUVERING THE SUPERVILLAINS
In principle, the best way to outmaneuver both Brainiac and Mastermind is simple: prevent the components of experience and ideas from being ripped apart in our cultural thinking. In practice, however, it is not clear how this outmaneuvering can be accomplished, because at the core of the supervillain maneuvers are some very puzzling questions. If ideas are not inside of our head, where are they? And in terms of real-life experience, how can it possibly matter whether a rock falls, gets thrown, or pops up out of nothingness? Doesn’t the rock still strike us on the shoulder and cause pain? These are good questions. But they also have good answers, if we look closely enough at the odd relationship between experience and ideas.
WUNDT AND THE METRONOME
No one struggled more with the strange connection between experience and ideas than Wilhelm Wundt. Wundt was a German physician and professor who founded the world’s first psychology lab in 1879 and who is considered by most historians to be the founder of experimental psychology.
In his book called An Introduction to Psychology (written in German and first published in 1912), Wundt provides an exceptionally detailed description of his experiments with a metronome – the standard device used by musicians to mark time by producing precisely regulated clicks or beeps. While familiar with use of the metronome by musicians, Wundt also describes it as an exceptionally useful psychology apparatus. In order to be useful for the purpose of psychological experimentation, however, Wundt states that the metronome must be able to satisfy one requirement: “The strength of the beats must be sufficiently uniform, so that even to the most attentive listener differences in the intensity of the successive beats may not be noticed.” In other words, for a metronome to be helpful to Wundt in his psych lab, its “ticks” must be so steady and unchanging – so unvarying and identical – that listeners cannot tell any difference between them. In the language of present-day physics, we would say that the “ticks” of the metronome must be nearly identical in terms of their loudness (soundwave amplitude, which represents the maximum distance that particles move from their usual position when they vibrate, and which can be measured in decibels or dB); pitch (soundwave frequency, which represents the number of vibrations per second made by particles as they transmit sound, and which can be measured in hertz or Hz); and timbre or tone (harmonic content, which is determined by the number, intensity, and pattern of upper overtones, including the ratio of note frequencies and the degree of overtone sharing between notes).
While trying to make certain that the metronome in his psych lab was producing unvarying and identical beats, Wundt noticed something that he found quite peculiar. In his own words: ” .. it is really extraordinarily difficult to hear the beats in absolutely the same intensity, or, to put it in other words, to hear unrhythmically.” In fact, based on hours and hours of experimentation, Wundt found that it was absolutely impossible for his graduate students to hear a monotonous, repetitious series of metronome-generated beats (tick, tick, tick, tick, etc.) – even if those beats had been “certified” as identical in loudness and pitch and tone. What Wundt discovered was that his graduate students always heard some pattern (tick tock, tick tock, etc.). In fact, not only did they always hear some pattern, they also heard a wide variety of different patterns, depending on the spacing of the beats and the total number of beats sounded by the metronome. One common pattern was to hear the simple pairing of 2 beats: “tick tock, tick tock, tick tock.” This type of simple, 2-beat pattern was often heard when a large number of beats were spaced 1 to 1.5 seconds apart. But if these beats were spaced more closely together in time – say less than 1 second – the tendency of the listener was to hear a larger number of total beats (for example, 4 or 8 or 16 beats) as part of one whole pattern. Wundt also found that while 2-beat patterns could be heard in a virtually endless number of beats, the greatest number of beats that could be heard by his students as part of a whole pattern was 40 beats.
One of Wundt’s basic conclusions from these experiments was what he referred to as the “rhythmic disposition” of consciousness:
“Consciousness is rhythmically disposed, because the whole organism is rhythmically disposed. The movements of the heart, of breathing, of walking, take place rhythmically .. Our consciousness is not a thing separated from our whole physical and mental being.”
This episode in the history of psychology provides a full-fledged exposé of the strange relationship between experience and ideas. Like other psychologists of his time, Wundt assigns the auditory experience of his students to consciousness, which he views as a brain-regulated field of awareness complete with its own regions, thresholds, scope, and structural elements. But this assignment of events to consciousness is not necessary for appreciating the strange connection that gets revealed here between experience and ideas. Wundt’s students are unable to hear a monotonous, repetitious series of metronome-generated beats (tick, tick, tick, tick). It is impossible for them to disconnect their auditory experience from the realm of ideas. In this context, “realm of ideas” consists of “beat patterns.” For Wundt’s students, beat patterns are not slathered on top of auditory experience like butter is slathered on top of bread. Nor is unbuttered bread available. Wundt’s students experience the world (auditorily) through beat patterns (ideas). These beat patterns shape their ongoing experience and are inextricably intertwined with it. They do not add to experience or manufacture it. They are part of its character.
THE PECULIAR INTERTWINING OF EXPERIENCE AND IDEAS IN PERSONAL LIFE
As far back as I can remember, my father used to “forbid” my mother to drive long distances by herself. The reason he gave was her safety. And she never did drive a long distance on her own. One time, just after college, my girlfriend wanted to come and visit me. I told her that I did not like the idea of her driving such a long distance by herself. And I used safety as my reason. In reality, I was caught up in disbelief and absolutely ecstatic that she wanted to come see me. In addition, I wasn’t worried in the least bit about her safety. “Oh no!” I said to myself. “You are acting just like your father!”
We can spend a lifetime trying to shake some ideas (I am just like my father; I am nothing like my father; I am a loser; I somehow manage to ruin everything). We can spend a lifetime clinging to other ideas (I am blessed; I am the luckiest person on earth; I know it’s all for the best; everything happens for a reason). At times ideas show up from out of the blue – for example, when we’re taking a shower – only to vanish just as suddenly. It is impossible for us to predict when an idea might appear or disappear, or whether it will persist or fade. This unpredictability of ideas results from their embeddedness in experience. Ideas come and go (or don’t come and don’t go) because experiences come and go (or do not).
When I asked my girlfriend not to visit, was I acting just like my father? Was this idea somehow embedded into my experience, without me being aware of it? Soon after this phone call with my girlfriend, I started rummaging through as many personal experiences as I could, trying to determine how many things I had already done in the same way as my father. So here was an age-old idea (you are just like your father, you are just like your mother, the apple doesn’t drop far from th tree), embedding itself into my experience, catching me totally off-guard, thrusting me back into experiences that had otherwise been forgotten, and now, some four decades later, lingering around in this introduction to Inclusorium in whatever ruminative form.
“I have no idea,” we say, when some experience leaves us puzzled. “Great idea!” we say, when some problematic experience all of a sudden seems problem-free. Like my response to my girlfriend, these expressions attest to the strange and unpredictable intertwining of experience and ideas in our personal lives.
THE PECULIAR INTERTWINING OF EXPERIENCE AND IDEAS IN CULTURAL LIFE
In personal life, we have a good vantage point for viewing the interplay between experience and ideas: the time and space of experience is our time and space, and the thinking through which ideas pass is our thinking. In cultural life, however, this vantage point changes and we are no longer able to enjoy a front row seat. At best, what we get is a restricted view. Nothing changes in the performance that we are watching: experience and ideas continue intertwining in their same peculiar way. But when the context shifts from personal life to cultural life, the time and space of experience no longer remains our time and space, and the thinking through which ideas pass no longer remains our thinking. Cultural thinking requires a longer timeline, a broader geography, and large numbers of people. In the history of art, for example, the cultural transition between neoclassicism and surrealism took 150 years and involved the lives of hundreds of artists in dozens of countries. In the history of dance, a similar number of years intervened between the waltz and the foxtrot, and once again, a large number of participants were involved. And if we consider cultural transitions like the transition from hunter-gathering to farming, or the cultural transition from use of clay and stone to the smelting of ores, events get thrown into time frames that span thousands of years.
The shift in scale between personal life and cultural life takes away the possibility of a WYSIWYG approach to ideas and experience on a cultural level. When ideas move in and out of our thinking on a personal level, we can use our personal thought processes to “edit” the content of our experience and make sense of events on a moment-by-moment basis. This moment-by-moment processing of experience in personal thinking is one and the same as the finished product, i.e., the overall dynamics of our personal life. When ideas move in and out of cultural thinking, however, we no longer have any “editing” ability. At most, all we can do is try to imagine the overall cultural dynamics that surround us (and that also precede and surpass us) and try to figure out how our lives fit into this greater context.
In place of a WYSIWYG perspective, we are left to adopt the perspective of woodworkers who have no more to work with than single flat-sawn boards but still try to figure out events in the life of trees. When woodworkers come across a knot in a board, they are forced to imagine a spot in a tree where a branch had grown out of the trunk. Next, they try to figure out exactly how the board could have been cut from the tree. Compressed striations alongside of a knot help them determine how the board was cut, since cells in the tree would not have been compressed unless the weight of a branch had pressed down upon them. Compressed striations alongside of a knot tell woodworkers that this part of the board came from part of a tree below a branch. Similarly, when woodworkers see stretched striations alongside of a knot, they know that this part of the board came from part of a tree above a branch since the weight of a branch would have pulled down on the cells above it and stretched them out:
By “reading” the grain in a flat-sawn board, woodworkers can recognize a wealth of events in the life of a tree. That life may have started out long before the woodworkers were born, and the purpose of that life extended far beyond production of lumber (and may not have involved production of lumber at all, depending on whether the tree had been planted and grown for intentional harvest). Yet in every flat-sawn board that gets cut from a tree, the tree leaves its unique signature.
This same set of relationships holds true for passage of ideas through our cultural thinking. Each idea leaves its unique signature – a knot in a board – and these knots get surrounded by striations that show how our cultural thinking got compressed and stretched by ideas. As individual members of a culture, all we have to work with are single flat-sawn boards. This restricted view leaves us in the position of trying to imagine how things fit into the greater context.
Understanding how ideas shape our experience of events at a cultural level is not an unachievable task. But it is a task that requires all-inclusive thinking, since members of a culture have all kinds of personal experiences and ideas are always embedded inside of those experiences.
It is not the number of people that matters, or the diversity of their experiences or the comprehensiveness with which events in a culture get enumerated. Numbers and diversity and comprehensiveness are not the issue because no human endeavor escapes the intertwining of experience and ideas – not everyday sensory perception (hearing, seeing, tasting, touching, smelling), not involvement in the arts and humanities, not involvement in the sciences, not involvement in religious practices or family obligations or civilian life. There is no way to address all of it, nor any need to do so. Understanding pathways in cultural thinking in not a matter of getting everything mapped, gathering every bit of demographic data, or measuring the volume of foot traffic along every pathway of thought. It’s a matter turning to ideas and trying to imagine which ones have left their unique signatures in our cultural experience, compressing and stretching our cultural thinking and shaping our collective experience of events. Any single idea can transform many aspects of culture. It’s up to us to be open-minded about ideas that might be involved. This open-mindedness about ideas is where inclusiveness comes into play, because we have no way of knowing ahead of time which ideas will pass into and out of our cultural thinking.
In the late 1800’s, for example, the idea of “energy” was one such idea that embedded itself into the experience of Western scientists. Heat, sound, light, gravity, chemical reactions, mechanical reactions, and magnetism all came to be reimagined as forms of energy.
In our own time, the idea embedding itself into the experience of Western scientists is information, and countless events are being reimagined as forms of information transfer: genetics, genomics, proteomics, informatics, transcriptomics, metabolomics, microbiomics. Is this list comprehensive? No, absolutely not. Have some fields of study been unfairly excluded from this list? Yes, without question. Is this list as diverse as it could be? Absolutely not. But from the standpoint of cultural thinking, these shortcomings do not matter. What matters is whether we can accurately recognize the intertwining between experience and ideas and avoid doing it an injustice. Among all ideas known to man, how confident are we that “information” is the idea that has nestled itself into our present-day scientific endeavors? And if we believe that it is, what does this set of circumstances tell us about the mind of our culture and the things that we care about?
Once again: Welcome to Inclusorium.