The wood nymphs vanished as the woods filled with trailer camps.Water sprites have been crowded out by submarines and scuba divers. – Walter Ong, “World as View and World as Event”
In view of last week’s discussion regarding the “naturally human,” the question must now be put: To what extent did a reorganization of our Pleistocene-honed sensorium lead to the suppression of “primal participation,” eventually to be lost beneath layers of civilizing enculturation? If so, what conditions may have led to such a reorganization, and under what organizing principle? In short, what intervened to come between the inter-animating forces of our hominid senses and the rich plenum of the earthly sensuous?
The answer may be somewhat complicated. Among the issues we need to consider are the shift from nomadic foraging to domestic agriculture, from a pre-conscious engagement with natural periodicities to a strictly unidirectional time-consciousness, from oral to literate culture, from polysemic totemic identifications to the strictly univocal law of identity, from a lived-experience of the earthly sensuous to the ascendancy of vision in a now truncated sensorial hierarchy — what Walter Ong might call a diminishment of the ‘world-as-presence’.
Insofar as [the world-as-presence] is grounded in the senses, it appears to be grounded in all of them simultaneously. We speak of a ‘sense’ of presence, rather than a sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch of presence. (“World as View and World as Event”)
If we are to understand these diverse modulations, we must first entertain the possibility that a shift in food acquisition techniques from foraging to agriculture, from nomadic to domestic life-ways, involved a substantive change in early Homo sapiens’ self-image and relationship to the environment, existentially, perceptually, and epistemologically. Apparently, the encompassing surround of nature came increasingly to be viewed as an external, independent field of objects; a reification arrived at by means of a burgeoning instrumental reason.
Wandering, hunting, and gathering, along with the sensual familiarity of the territory – wild and in the round – was slowly eclipsed, replaced by a situated, stable, and staid observation post, overlooking newly planted fields now spread out before well-trained hopeful eyes, waiting upon the anticipated cornucopia. Not to be lost sight of here are the numerous visual metaphors that became ever more critical to a domesticated and domesticating life-way, while the other senses seemed to atrophy and fade into the background as so much noise.
There was unquestionably a unique perceptual hierarchy emerging around this transition in food production methodologies, redefining new settled and civilized sensibilities, with a highly stylized vision, a hyper-visualism, perched upon the apex of a new sensorial pyramid – a vision, moreover, busied with diligently planning its next move, and planting its sights on the future. Yet, as Jonathan Z. Smith unambiguously stated in his monograph of the same name, ‘the map is not the territory’; the visual field, now a predominantly flat-screened projection of objects ‘out there,’ revealed itself ever more clearly as surface appearances, slowly but surely emptied of vitality and deprived of depth, as the eclipsing of the sensorium continued unabated.
Don’t misunderstand me, vision is indeed a noble and wonder-filled endowment, without which our survival as a species might be unimaginable. However, vision is only
the part-function of a whole body which experiences its dynamic involvement with the environment in the feeling of its position and changes of position. The ‘possession’ of a body of which the eyes are a part is indeed the primal fact of our ‘spatiality’… Without this background of nonvisual, corporeal feeling and the accumulated experience of performed motion, the eyes alone would not supply the knowledge of space… (The Phenomenon of Life, Hans Jonas, p. 154)
We tend to forget that spatiality emerges as we feel our bodies move within a world that reaches out and receives our flesh – that our motility and gestures betray the body as a point of departure on the world, an openness to its presence, an intertwining between our senses and the earthly sensuous that reciprocates and corresponds to our every move. It is only the chimera of a theoretical interiority, hypothesized by rationalist metaphysics, granting singular and privileged position to sight, that creates the impression of a purely objective world in the first place, as if viewed through a telescope and from a great distance. But this impression does not correspond to what our bodies tell us every day, even before we open our eyes, extending our feet blindly, only to be met by the ground beneath us. As David Abrams teases, “Prior to all our verbal reflections, at the level of our spontaneous sensorial engagement with the world around us, we are all animists.” (The Spell of the Sensuous, p. 57)
So why is it that sight alone achieved such a lofty, even commanding, status? Why is the subjectivity of the body shunned, while vision takes on an independent but truncated life of its own? For whatever reason, we find that in Greek thought, sight had already been elevated – “hailed as the most excellent of senses.” In fact, visual metaphors constantly emerge to describe the highest activity of mind – theoria. From Plato onward, all of Western philosophy honors sight, referring to it alternatively as the “eye of the soul” and “the light of reason.” Aristotle confirms this in the opening remarks of his treatise on Metaphysics:
ALL men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight.
Yet, despite Aristotle’s presumption, and as maintained above, the very motility of the body – its ability to move, to act, to reach out and touch – is always, already a “factor in the very constitution of seeing and the seen world themselves, much as this genesis is forgotten in the conscious result.” (Jonas, 152)
Discussing the nurturing and social development of infants and toddlers among the New Guinea forest-dwelling hunter-gatherer-gardeners on the southern slopes of the Kratke Range just after Western contact in the early 1960s, Richard Sorenson writes,
When babies began acquiring verbal speech, their words and sentences floated out atop a sophisticated body-language already well in place. Even after acquiring spoken language, tactile-talk continued taking precedence in much of daily life. It conveyed affect better. It was faster and more direct. Most of all it touched more deeply and more quickly into the hearts and minds of others. Tactile-talk was affect-talk. It integrated the spontaneous affect of individuals, often many at a time. So adept did young children become at this that they would at times merge actions into wordless synchrony. (Preconquest Consciousness)
So, what turned Pleistocene vision and its co-participating a “sense of presence” into the Holocene enemy of original participation? What pushed our visual sensibility into reifying and objectifying the world as something out-there and wholly separate from us, like a screen or a spectacle to be observed, a series of objects to be manipulated and controlled – where even other people have become simple “marks” or “targets” that are in our “sights?” When and why did vision become this hyper-visual villan?
It is likely that such transformation began slowly, proceeding in conjunction with some other key cultural developments, literacy, for example — the externalization and objectification of speech in the written word. As Walter Ong has suggested,
The world of a dominantly oral or aural culture is dynamic and relatively unpredictable, an event-world rather than an object-world… Sound signals the present use of power, since sound must be in active production in order to exist at all…[Ong 1967:112]
There was a power and polysemy in the utterance that was not discernable within the written word. But the visual and, indeed, linear nature of writing and reading, as opposed to the oral/aural surround of speech, certainly contributed to elevating this new hyper-visualism and its specific requirements.
And this leads us to the concomitant birth of a new logistic – a specialized rationale for linguistic-structuring that allowed for the “lawful” codification of an increasingly objective worldview, the “discovery” and investigation of material causality, and correlatively, a growing commitment to unidirectional time.
As Ingold argues,
… the responsibility for reducing the world to a realm of manipulable objects lies not with the hegemony of vision but with a ‘certain narrow conception of thought.’ And it is this conception, too, that has led to the reduction of vision – that is, to its construal as a sensory modality specialized in the appropriation and manipulation of an objectified world. (The Perception of the Environment, p. 287)
Of course, the situation may have been forced by the break-up of pre-urban clans (as discussed last week), the growth of urban life, and the accumulation of newly estranged peoples within the anonymity of the city center. These conditions demanded a severe change in the nature of human communication, including the removal of any polysemic ambiguity in primal speech, and the articulation of a strictly univocal semantic. Such linguistic conceptualization was only effected with the invention of the syllogism, early on perfected by the Greeks, and applied by legislators, scientists, and other specialists down through the ages. In this newly established logistic hierarchy, universal statements were related to particular circumstances, leading to logical legal and scientific conclusions.
This [tripartite logistic] form becomes a foundation-layer of both the internal and external life of the West. We can call [this] logistic stratum of the univocal linguistic hierarchy the curriculum of the West. [Bram]
This is how natural laws were ‘discovered’, and social laws, born. It was by means of the syllogism – the core of Western logic – that cause and effect would now be properly related on the horizontal axis of a unidirectional timeline, past actions identified as the causal bases of present or future effects.
And so, it would be under that ever-watchful eye of Father Time – occupying his sacred place in the clock tower at the center of the town square – that the rational business of civilization was to be carried out; marking time, managing resources, assigning liability, measuring risk, buying and selling commodities (including human commodities) in the open marketplace – with the smell of the animate world now receding further from ‘view’.
The institutionalization of civic life, now regulated by the clock and managed with social and economic laws, would further concretize a growing sense of individual isolation, competitiveness, and the emergence of purely self-regarding behavior that would forever haunt modern human societies.
I wager, then, that it is in this ancient ascendancy of sight, and the modern establishment of a hyper-visualism born of a new logistic, that the experience of primal participation was finally buried underneath the accreted layers of the ‘curriculum of the West’ — never really extinguished, but simply muted along with the richness and depth of the earthly sensuous upon which it depends.
Finally, maybe now we can better appreciate the ineluctable pull of the ubiquitous, brightly glowing computer screen, and its representation of a remote world out-there, a fully-externalized, albeit virtual reality, where we can enter into disembodied relationships, engage in private war games, or deliver live drone attacks on foreign soils without ever once moving our bodies, touching the ground, getting our hands dirty, or otherwise sensing the taste of blood on our tongues, the smell of earth in our nostrils, hearing the cries of the dying, or feeling the brush of naked flesh against flesh.