Consciousness as the Flight of Three Blackbirds


By John Briggs


CSU Distinguished Professor

Dept. of English Language, Comparative Literature and Writing

Western Connecticut State University

Danbury, Connecticut 06810 USA

email: briggsjp@wcsu.edu


Prepared for

The Dimensions of Conscious Experience

An International Workshop

Skövde, Sweden

Oct. 10-12, 1997


Published in

Advances in Consciousness Research, Vol. 37

Edited by Paavo Pylkanen and Tere Vaden

John Benjamins Publishing Company 2001



Perhaps the most striking feature of many current recipes for consciousness is their hubris. Every month authors of books and papers confidently announce their solutions to "the problem" of consciousness. In a 1997 issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies, one prominent biophysicist claimed to have located the "mechanism of consciousness" in what he calls the "master module" or "core circuitry of consciousness" (Cotterill). Scores of other authors believe that a full-blown artificial mind will relatively soon emerge out of computer programming imitations of the brain's processing schemes. It's tempting to lampoon some of the positions, such as the one in which a world-class theorist has been able to solve the "hard problem" of consciousness--and incidentally expand his own self-importance--by declaring that the self (and therefore the problem) doesn't exist.

One would like to think of such pronouncements as no more than what Wallace Stevens called in his poem, "The Sense of the Slight-of-Hand man," "one's grand flights, one's Sunday baths,/ One's tootings at the weddings of the soul" (222). But they do have an ominous ring about them. They seem to foreshadow our intention to do to consciousness what we have so determinedly done to our environment by chopping it to bits and cleverly reassembling it for a profit. Will our hubris now lead us to a kind of environmental crisis of the human mind?

Perhaps not if we can still allow poetry to influence us.

Poetry, painting, music and other arts embody an appreciation of the mind's creative mysteries. I believe they tell us something valuable about why we should not be so glib about reducing consciousness to a code and why we should probably not be in such a hurry to try.

To hear what poetry has to say on this subject I suggest we think about consciousness in terms of three "orders," or, more properly, three "ordering processes"--the flight of three blackbirds. The first blackbird represents much of our everyday awareness; the second represents an apparently paradoxical conscious activity; the third represents poetry. This third order --or third blackbird--I call 'the order of this*other-ness.' I will also call it by other names. It relies on the other two orders in dynamically circular ways.

(A caveat: In discussing these three orders I don't mean to suggest that the brain contains distinct neurological structures, neuotransmitters, feedback mechanisms or other apparatus that generate them. In fact, it's possible that to some degree one or even all of the orders operates through the brain rather than being generated by it. As Forman puts it, "Brain cells may receive, guide, arbitrate, or canalize an awareness which is somehow transcendental to them" (197). But that is not the issue I'd like to concentrate on in the next pages.)

The Primary Order

The order within consciousness most researched by brain scientists and most discussed by consciousness theorists (remembering, again, that the word order refers to the activity of ordering) I propose to call, with just a small touch of irony, the 'primary order.'

The primary order seems to dominate our Western awareness and probably dominates the reader's awareness reading these sentences.

Crudely put, this order involves consciousness organizing the organism's experience of the world into knowledge. The general principle of the primary order is quite simple, though its realization in cytoplasm, protein, neurotransmitters, quantum particles and whatever else, is incredibly complex: The primary order 'abstracts' out of the constant flow of energy impinging on the organism's senses and emerging from its own interior processes certain "relatively invariant" features, to use physicist David Bohm's phrase (185). These abstractions are then structured into maps which, in turn, abstract further features. Many of the 'filters,' categories, schema, or maps that do the abstracting appear to be built into the anatomical processes of the nervous system. But many are acquired or built up through the individual's interaction with the physical and social environment. Both the built-in and built-up types of filters organize into networked layers of interacting categories and maps within consciousness and perception.

Perhaps the most famous example in modern neuroscience of a built-in abstraction device is the system discovered by David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel in the 1950s. They demonstrated that a cell in the lateral geniculate nucleus of a cat responds with wild excitation when a line of light in a specific orientation is shone on a screen in front of the cat's eye. The researchers determined that different cells in this area respond to very specific orientations of light. In effect, the cells appear to be hard wired to abstract (analyze or filter) out of the flood-tide of input from the cat's environment relatively invariant information about the orientation of the light (Zeki 76-81). Such hard-wired abstractions combine with other abstractions to generate interacting maps or representations in consciousness of the organism's experience.

Examples of built-up maps, as opposed to built-in ones, abound. Prejudices, ideas, paradigms, emotional reactions, linguistic categories. We can construe all of these as networked layers of abstraction and mapping. In The Essential Tension, Kuhn neatly illustrates how such mapping can occur. He asks us to imagine Johnny and his father walking in a zoological garden:

Johnny's education proceeds as follows. Father points to a bird, saying, "Look, Johnny, there's a swan." A short time later Johnny himself points to a bird, saying, "Daddy, another swan." He has not yet, however, learned what swans are and must be corrected: "No, Johnny, that's a goose." Johnny's next identification of a swan proves to be correct, but his next "goose" is, in fact, a duck, and he is again set straight. After a few more such encounters, however, each with its appropriate correction or reinforcement, Johnny's ability to identify these waterfowl is as great as his father's. Instruction has been quickly completed.

I ask now what has happened to Johnny, and I urge the plausibility of the following answer. During the afternoon, part of the neural mechanism by which he processes visual stimuli has been reprogrammed, and the data he receives from stimuli which would all earlier have evoked "bird" have changed. When he began his walk, the neural program highlighted the differences between individual swans as much as those between swans and geese. By the end of the walk, features like the length and curvature of the swan's neck have been highlighted [i.e., abstracted and mapped] and others have been suppressed [for example, a goose style of preening may be quite similar to that of a swan; but such a nuance is suppressed in learning this paradigm, though it might not be suppressed in a culture other than Johnny's where the paradigm is different] so that swan data match each other and differ from goose and duck data as they had not before. Birds that had previously all looked alike (and also different) are now grouped in discrete clusters in perceptual space (309-310).

Johnny is also, of course, having his emotional space mapped by the tone in which his father conducts this lesson. 1 ENDNOTE The ideational-emotional content of any individual's consciousness undulates with maps composed of abstractions drawn out and then linked by the many forces of conditioning (i.e., family, society, the physical environment).2 ENDNOTE As Bohm says, "Very soon immediate perception takes on the structure of these 'maps' and, after this, one is no longer aware that the map only represents what has been found to be invariant. Rather, the map begins to interpenetrate what is perceived in such a way that it seems to be an inevitable and necessary feature of the whole of experience" (196).

Over the past few decades many types of abstracting, categorizing and mapping processes have been discovered in consciousness and the details of how much and which of them are built-in or built-up continues to be the subject of heated debate.

A popular approach follows from the logic of Chomsky suggesting that the brain contains a wired-in universal grammar module. According to the theory, the particular language environment into which the brain is born sculpts these universal schema creating a semantic map of the individual's native language. Other inbuilt modules have been proposed, such as one for visually identifying physical objects, and one for abstracting the features of faces.

Extensive research indicates that the blackbird I've called the primary order exists in the brain. However, the materialist attempt to make the whole of consciousness out of such a primary order has resulted in the ludicrous image of the human mind as a bootstrapped perceptual, emotional and cognitive automaton.

The Primordial Order

To extend the irony, I call the second general order of consciousness--our second blackbird--the 'primordial order.' It reveals itself in the following story:


Gutei raised his finger, whenever he was asked a question about Zen. A boy attendant began to imitate him in this way. When anyone asked the boy what his master had preached about, the boy would raise his finger.

Gutei heard about the boy's mischief. He seized him and cut off his finger. The boy cried and ran away. Gutei called and stopped him. When the boy turned his head to Gutei, Gutei raised up his own finger. In that instant the boy was enlightened (Sohl and Carr 54).


If the primary order abstracts out elements from the flux, creates categories and formulates our responses, the primordial order de-abstracts abstractions to generate (at least momentarily) an unmapped, unabstracted state.

An example from the ancient Taoist sage Chuang Tzu provides a particularly clear picture of the primordial order in action:

Chuang's passage begins with the statement, "Heaven and earth were born at the same time I was, and the ten thousand things are one with me." The sage's initial assertion is logically absurd. It unabstracts the boundary lines we use to divide time and space. But then, apparently aware of the ability of the primary order consciousness to make maps out of anything, Chuang Tzu doesn't let his statement rest; instead, he ratchets it back upon itself. "We have already become one," he says, "so how can I say anything? But I have just said that we are one, so how can I not be saying something? The one and what I said about it make two, and two and the original one make three, If we go on this way, then even the cleverest mathematician can't tell where we'll end..." (Watson 43). Maps come undone, abstractions fly apart.

The primordial order has not been extensively researched by scientists though throughout the human record it flowers into consciousness, often with great import.

"Jesus said to them: When you make the two one, and make the inside like the outside, and the outside like the inside, and the upper side like the under side, and in such a way that you make the man with the woman a single one, in order that the man is not the man and the woman is not woman;... then you will go into the kingdom" (Sohl and Carr 71).

Heraclitus: "The bones connected to the joints are at once a unitary whole and not a unitary whole. To be in agreement is to differ; the concordant is the discordant. From out of all the many particulars comes oneness, and out of oneness come all the many particulars" (Wheelwright 90).

Nicholas of Cusa appeared to undermine the mind by describing God as the "De Li Non Aliud," the "Not-Other" (Hopkins). Meister Eckhart observed, "The eye by which I see God is the same as the eye by which God sees me. My eye and God's eye are one and the same--one in seeing, one in knowing, and one in loving." And he advised, "Who is Jesus? He has no name" (Sohl and Carr 90-92). The Hindu tradition makes the primordial observation that: Tut vum asi (You are that, that is you) and insists that the Atman, or individual soul, is the same as Brahman, the world soul.

In sum, the primordial order operates in the mind to break down the primary order separations, distinctions and maps of knowledge and perception. Western traditions have weighed in heavily on the side of primary order consciousness, while Eastern and indigenous shamanic traditions have emphasized the primordial.

In indigenous storytelling one of the great embodiments of the primordial, unabstracting activity of mind, is Trickster--a figure found the world over:

Two farmers who owned adjoining fields were one day enjoying each other's company when Trickster appeared, walking the boundary between lands. He wore his hat backwards, fastened his tobacco pipe to the nape of his neck and wore his staff across his back instead of his chest. When he had passed, the two friends began to argue about which direction he'd been traveling in. When Trickster repeated his passage along the boundary between fields, the argument between the two so-called friends grew even hotter, to the point where they came to blows. Finally, the two were separated by others and brought before the chief. Trickster, observing all this, entered the village while everyone was distracted by the commotion and set fire to the houses. Seeing the smoke and flames, the villagers ran to their homes and began to pull the possessions out of their houses; chaos ensued as everyone's belongings became mixed up with everyone else's. As he ran from the scene of disorder he had caused, Trickster boasted that everyone had played his game well (Pelton 141).

Holland and Combs remark, "Here we see Trickster disrupting the assumptions about good friendship held by the two farmers and about the coherence of their community and the autonomy of individuals within it held by the villagers." Trickster brings the audience for this story to a boundary and points across it to a reality shorn of maps. Trickster produces chaos--at least chaos from the point of view of the villagers. But he himself is not chaotic. In simplest terms, he represents a kind of mirror order, reversing and therefore undoing the known world. When we imagine that we've got everything tied up and accounted for, Trickster appears, so even accounting for him as a mirror figure won't work. He'll only trick us again.

In the ancient Tarot deck, Trickster shows up in the form of the Fool, the figure with the cap and bells. According to tradition, the Fool is foolishness or madness, but he is also spirit. He is the perfected spirit of man approaching the undifferentiated One, the 0 which contains all things but itself is no-thing (Cavandish 114). As a book on the Tarot says under its description for the image, the Fool is the character "whose Divine unwisdom uncouples the chains of time and space" (Matthews). Consider the primordial role taken by Fools in great literature like King Lear. The Fool tells the Truth, which is that all the "normal" folk, including the royal elite, have become enmeshed in illusory certitudes of their primary order.

Though the primordial order (or unordering) appears destructive and Dionysian--as we heard with the West African trickster story--it isn't. If we pay attention to what happens when an unabstracting process takes place in our own consciousness, we observe that the movement feels creative, more like a flowering than a destruction. What appears to be destructive from the perspective of the primary order,from the perspective consciousness as a whole, is freedom.

In the wonderful Winnebago story cycle, the trickster, Wakdjunkaga, experiences his life as "something of a wild phantasmagoria" (Radin 138). He carries his penis around on his back; he burns his anus; he tricks mothers into leaving their children with them so he can eat them; he violates and satirizes deeply important Winnebago beliefs and rituals. He sets his listeners free of their assumptions so that they may accommodate themselves to the vicissitudes of the human condition and appreciate their own involvement in making reality.

Below are a few of the many places where I think the primordial order (or ordering) of consciousness is at work:

MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE: Forman discriminates two classes of mystical states. The first involves the "cessation of sensation and conceptualization...meditation without content..." He believes this shows a consciousness exists "even when one has no perception, thought or evaluation" (190-91). St. Teresa of Avila, referring to her self in the third person, said of this state that "even if she would, she could not think of any single thing.... She is utterly dead to the things of the world....She neither sees, hears, nor understands" (189). And Eckhart: "In this case...memory no longer functioned, nor understanding, nor the senses, nor the powers that should function so as to govern and grace the body... In this way a man should flee his senses, turn his powers inward and sink into an oblivion of all things and himself" (189) He added, "The tablet is never so suitable for writing as when absolutely nothing is written on it." (195)

In Forman's analysis, a second, more profound, type of mystical state occurs when the individual consciousness experiences itself as merging or merged with the whole of existence outside itself. For example, Bernadette Roberts, ex-nun, mother, housewife and author of The Experience of No-Self, described standing on a hillside overlooking the ocean watching a seagull and realizing "What I am is the seagull, and what the seagull is, I am."

In both of the mystical states delineated by Forman, the primordial order suddenly saturates awareness in the way that the primary order usually does.

I don't at all mean to suggest that mystical experience is reducible to the primordial order. Who knows if it might not be closer to reality to say that mystical consciousness uses the primordial order as a means to express itself.

ALCHEMY: Primordial awareness riddles the rhetoric of Medieval alchemists. They asserted that it was only through the force of contraries that the elixir of life could be coaxed into the open. They described the philosopher's stone as paradoxically the highest and yet most primitive state of matter. They called it the prima materia. In some texts the alchemist was portrayed as distilling the prima materia from dung.

SHAMANISM: According to many accounts, during initiation a shaman has his body--that is, his/her primary structure and order of sensations, perceptions and thoughts--torn apart, cleaned, and reassembled. Shamans testify that at various times during their careers they have changed sex--gender being presumably one of our most basic certainties of primary order. This overturning of gender categories in the shamanic context apparently releases deep insight and healing power (Halifax).

HUMOR. In his classic treatise, Le Rire, Bergson postulates that humor occurs with the undercutting of some "stiffness" or raideur. We laugh when the grande dame or fastidious prig gets a pie in the face or slips on a banana peel. John Clese's absurdly rigid character Basil in the television show Fawlty Towers is a contemporary example. The stiffness of a self-image or an unquestioned assumption (both rooted in primary order consciousness) set up potential fall guys for humor.

Humor seems vital, possibly even central, to human consciousness. Years ago I read about holocaust survivor who reportedly told a joke he said went around his camp. As I recall, it went something like this: Two men are on their way to the gas chamber. One turns to the other and says, "Well, Jacob, next time we'll have a chance to be next to each other like this, we'll be two bars of soap on a shelf in a Budapest shop." Here we see the primordial order within humor providing a measure of freedom from the grip of a totalized and deadly primary order.

But not all humor is primordial. Humor that targets a particular group or individual, relying on stereotypes actually serves to reinforce the relatively invariant categories and maps of the primary order.

DREAMS. In REM sleep the brain makes juxtapositions which, at least at some levels, undo the established abstractions of conscious awareness. Dreams appear to partake of the primordial order, but they also serve as handmaidens for creating, elaborating and reinforcing the primary abstractions of consciousness.

The woman who experienced the following dream was clearly having the schema of her memory and emotions unraveled by seeing them placed in bizarre juxtapositions:

I was walking in a rocky place, almost mountainous. Out of the blue I met a girl from school (she had never been a close friend) called L.L., (very slim, bony prominent nose, attractive, dark-eyed, thin hair). She was carrying a body under her arm. She had a machine around her neck, like a box on her chest, and tubes went into the body, connected in, like a life-support system.

I asked, 'Why are you carrying this person?' She replied, 'Oh, it's my mother, I must keep her going.' I said , 'If you go on the rocks, the mountains will support her.' The body was naked, but there was no hair; it was a clothlike body, but I knew it was alive and female (Ullman and Limmer 39).


On the one hand, the dream imagery unabstracts abstractions. (For example here, the body is a doll's body, yet it's alive.) But, on the other hand, the dream easily yields to an interpretation which fits with the maps of the primary order: This dreamer was anticipating the arrival of her aging, unwell mother for their annual holiday.

Interestingly, the unabstractions of dream metaphor appear to serve the mind's primary abstracting and mapping process in a way that is not well understood. Perhaps dreams operate as our own personal tricksters, undermining the ossifying structures of our primary order so as to keep daily consciousness reasonably flexible and sane. It may even be (paradoxically) that drawing our maps requires the input of our ability to erase them.

METAPHORS. Language is filled with metaphors, most of them dead. But the live ones, have a primordial effect, momentarily overturning primary abstractions. For instance, suppose you overheard someone in a conversation say, "Oh, right. This guy's brain is a stone." For a quick moment the metaphor disassembles the categories which define what a mind and a person are. But the metaphors of everyday discourse quickly resolve into the primary order, reconnecting to our system of classifications and categories. In the case of this metaphor, the context of the discussion would immediately convert the metaphor into some primary order judgment or description about the man in question--for example, a classification that the man's mind is impenetrable. Poetic metaphors, however, don't resolve in this way (as we'll see when we come to our third blackbird).

PSYCHO ACTIVE DRUGS: Some drugs can disrupt the categorical mechanisms of the brain, scrambling maps and map-making abilities. To an extent, they may imitate the effect of the primordial order. Or, (as in peyote rituals) they may facilitate the primordial ordering's rise into conscious awareness. Often, however, drugs simply seem to derange the abstractions of the primary order without really unabstracting them.3 ENDNOTE

DECONSTRUCTION: Post-structuralist theory can be viewed as a philosophical formalization of an unabstracting process. Terry Eagleton characterizes the deconstructive maneuver as an "unsettling venture into the inner world of the text which lays bare the illusoriness of meaning, the impossibility of truth and the deceitful guiles of all discourse" (Eagleton 126). The problem is that deconstruction as an abstract nihilistic theory is subject to the same "takeover" by the primary order as the statement about Oneness that Chuang Tzu addressed. Unless a tricksterist spirit of primordial order is brought to bear during the deconstruction, the post-structuralist strategy turns into another sort of map, a mental structure of categorical opinons cleverly disguising themselves as non-categories and non-opinions.

DOUBLE-THINK: Orwellian-type double-think goes on in society all the time. During the 2000 U.S. presidental election, republican George W. Bush declared himself a "compassionate conservative." This oxymoron was Bush's attempt to maintain his traditional conservatism while adding a facade liberalism.

Quite possibly the primordial order animates many deceptions, self-deceptions and perversities of human nature and human thought. Perhaps it operates behind the scene when we vow we won't eat any more fatty foods and then right away feel obliged to gorge on them. Clearly there is a movement of consciousness which is constantly subversive to its own structures. (But as the mystical experience suggests, this is not merely a destructive impulse.)

The primordial order may be lurking behind the scenes in much of ordinary discourse. When I try to describe a complex scene, an emotionally moving or unusual sight, a subtle idea or insight, some part of my consciousness seems to be unabstracting my description even as I make it. Something causes both mind and physiology to hesitate and veer. I feel afflicted by some fleeting awareness of the ambiguity of words, of the contradictions lurking in the signals of inflection and body language, and of the terrible insufficiency of categories and even of perception and sensation to capture what is here. We tacitly observe this fundamental ambiguity going on all the time in discourse. Someone says he had a wonderful time at the beach but other signals he gives out subtly negate his assertion. We're aware of a hole in the communication, a space in which there's something we can't put our finger on (presumably what the boy with the chopped-off finger understood). We ignore this sort of subliminal mental activity, for the most part. The primary order dominates. Artists, however, bring the primordial order to the foreground. The playwright Harold Pinter, for example, shows us that the day-to-day banalities of our conversations contain abysses. We all know that it's often what someone is failing to communicate that communicates to us most powerfully. Virginia Woolf exploited the unabstracting aspect of ordinary thought and speech by generously crafting ellipses into unfinished sentences and phrases that suggest the collapse of abstractions at crucial moments.

In its most basic form, the primordial order expresses our ability to actively seek and recognize the contradictions within our primary constructions. Thus, it is an essential part of the creative activity that goes into the construction and remodeling of each perception and conceptualization that consciousness undertakes. But the primordial, I believe, also does much more. It functions sometimes simply to negate the primary abstractions in a way that keeps us open to the fact that no construction of reality is adequate.

Our awareness of our own death provides a deep experience of the primordial order's presence. In this awareness, we glimpse that nature continuously abstracts elements out itself in order to generate new structures and 'categories' of beings, both living and inanimate, and also continuously 'unabstracts' these structures through erosion and death. For humans, of course, even the contemplation of that unabstracted state from which no traveler returns puzzles our will, profoundly unmaps us. One imagines that if death were abolished tomorrow, our very humanity would be destroyed along with it. We might be drawn, even more than we are now, to live solely in our primary order constructions, in the relative shallowness of our knowledge, avoiding even more than now the experience of anything that might lie beyond our abstractions. Death provides a healthy balance for the mind by opening up what moves beyond the mind's superstructure, revealing what isn't abstract-able and categorize-able (despite all our efforts), bringing to us, as God tells Isaiah, "the treasures of darkness."

The primordial order in nature (as distinguished from the primordial order in consciousness) also shows itself in other ways than cessation and death--tricksterish ways often disguised by our primary maps. Marie Louise von Franz tells the following story in Alchemical Imagination:

I once lectured at the CERN, the nuclear center in Geneva, Switzerland. When I mentioned synchronicity there were roars of laughter and these famous physicists said: 'Oh, we know that very, very well: our computer absolutely always answers as we expect it to answer. If we believe in a wrong theory... the computer just performs according to what we expect; and then a colleague, who does not believe it, uses the computer for a few hours and gets a completely different result.' They roared with laughter. But when I tried to pin them down and say, 'Well Gentlemen, then please take that experience seriously,' Weiskopf said, 'Oh, that's all nonsense, synchronicity is all nonsense,' but with a mad affect (qtd in Holland and Combs).


It seems reasonable to imagine that in its primary and primordial movements human consciousness reflects the primary and primordial movement of the universe in general--movements out of which our consciousness itself is born.

Perhaps you could argue a survival advantage for a conscious organism possessing an explicit ability to unconstruct its own constructions--perhaps a necessary ability if you want to keep from getting stuck in your schema. However, I don't readily subscribe to such a materialist approach. The scientific conviction that the universe is essentially or perhaps entirely material and that subjective mental phenomena emerge out of a material substrate constitutes a primary order "take" on reality. Thus, from the scientific perspective, the primordial, unabstracted, order described by mystics, shamans and poets seems to be nothing more than an illusion. However, from vantage point of the primordial order the universe takes on a radically different look. The Hindu sages proposed that from the perspective of Maya, the world of the primary order is actually the illusion. This illusion contains an unabstract-able emptiness, a primordial no-thing-ness at its core.

So, does that mean the primary and primordial orders merely another grand set of dualities in conflict? I suggest they aren't.


I can very primitively represent why with a little diagram. Imagine that the background field on which this network, or organic grid, is drawn is the field of "Truth" in the sense of the Latin word, veritas, meaning "that which is", and implying "all of that which is," the whole of things. Imagine it as also Truth in the sense of aletheia--the Truth that both reveals and conceals--not relative truth or absolute truth but Truth as a kind of living, organic, holistic movement of things. The lines on this grid represent the primary order, which is to say they represent the intricate network of abstractions, categories and maps, including those which constitute what we call our subjective and objective experience. The spaces between the lines are the primordial order which is neither subjective nor objective. Of course, the grid here is static while knowledge and abstracting constantly move and change in their relationship to the total field of Truth. But there will always be spaces in knowledge, and these unabstracted spaces continuously transmogrify, just as knowledge does.

To glimpse the grid and its space as a whole, requires art.

The Order of This*other-ness, the Third Blackbird

Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick provides a clear example of the proposed third order,the 'order of this*other-ness,' at work in the mind. The great white whale pursued by Ahab and the crew of the Pequod presents itself to us, on the one hand, as an actual animal (and Melville constantly assaults us with scientific facts about whales and a wealth of technical detail about whaling in order to keep us in mind of this actuality). On the other hand, the whale represents a numen, a god or demon, an indifferent force of nature, or a malevolent exemplar of karma. The work compels us into a dynamic whirlpool where the whale breaches the surface as both 'this,' real primary thing, and also something vastly'other' than this, a mysterious primordial maw.

The dynamic of works of art is a dynamic of this*other-ness. The * of my made-up word indicates that the dynamic continuously folds back on itself. Whenever we imagine that the work is this (merely a whale), we are faced with the fact that it is other (god-like, devil-like, etc.); but if we conclude that it's other (Oh, you mean it's God), then we encounter that it's this (it's a sperm whale). Perhaps it is easiest to understand the dynamic of the order of this*other-ness by watching more closely how it functions in literary or artistic metaphors, which I've sometimes called "reflectaphors" or "metaprimes" in order to distinguish them from the everyday, common use variety of metaphor mentioned earlier. My word metaprime (the term I'll prefer here) indicates that this type of metaphor mediates between the primary and primordial orders even as it transforms them. "Meta" means between, and among and expresses change or alteration. With the word metaprime I mean to suggest that there are vital metaphor-like strategies at work in all the arts, from painting to music to film. These metaphor-like strategies are central to the emergence of the order of this*other-ness within a creative work.

A classic literary metaphor (reflectaphor or metaprime) asserts an identity between two terms which are categorically dissimilar. Relating terms in this way has an unabstracting, primordial effect. But the impact also goes beyond the primordial, as in this a literary metaphor from Homer's Iliad.

So he [Agamemnon] spoke, and the Argives shouted aloud, as surf crashing against a sheerness, driven by the south wind descending,some cliff out-jutting, left never alone by the waves from all the winds that blow, as they rise one place and another, they stood up scattering and made for the ships...(Lattimore 86).

The metaphor (metaprime of literature) creates an identity between the Argives responding to Agamemnon and the surf crashing against a cliff. The Greeks appear to us as a this (they're the Argive army) but also as other than this (the sea). The metaphor 'works' on us because, from one angle, (the angle of the primary order) an army and the surf are categorically different types of things, while, from another angle the metaphor makes us perceive they're the same. The clash and merging, and the merging and clash of the two terms unabstracts them and the maps they're connected to, and opens up rich ambiguities.

But 'ambiguities' here doesn't imply 'unclear'; in fact this metaphor seems starkly clear. Unlike the mostly dead and dying metaphors we use every day, the literary metaprime does not move to resolve itself into a primary order abstraction we could map into knowledge. In order to see this, simply reflect: 'Does the human army in this metaphor appear to you as powerful and mighty as the sea or does it seem the helpless victim of circumstance blown and shattered like surf against a rock?' By forcing us to experience these two entirely contradictory, entirely unresolved perceptions (and others) simultaneously, Homer takes us into the paradoxical movement of Truth where man 1),is helplessly driven by circumstances (fate) and 2), willfully drives and creates his own fate. This sort of thing is what literary metaphors, metaprimes and reflectaphors do to create a sense of this*other-ness in the work.

These lines have something in common with ones written almost 3,000 years later by Stevens in his "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird":

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.

It was a small part of the pantomime (93).

Here we can reflect whether the blackbird whirls of its own volition or is being spun by the wind. The whirling appears as both 'this' (the bird is doing the action) and 'other than this' (the wind is doing it). Within the context of the line, the single term "whirled" functions as if it were composed of two contradictory terms whirling around each other.

Puns, irony, poetic images, all these have a similar dynamic. Woolf called her art a process of working to "attain similarity by means of infinite discords." (Gordon 108)

Homer's and Stevens' metaprimes affirm the primary order by giving us armies, surf, blackbirds and autumn winds to perceive. These categories seem "real" to us--as both objective and subjective representations within consciousness. But at the same time the metaprimal juxtaposition unravels the network containing these categories. As a result of this, an awareness emerges of a dimension of things not quite real, not quite unreal, neither entirely existent nor yet just non-existent, neither objective nor subjective. Imbued with a sense of this*other-ness, reality seems both familiar and uncanny, known and unknown, dreamlike and solid. Woolf called the experiences of this*other-ness "moments of being," and said they are not always pleasant.

An awareness of the strange and familiar this*other-ness of life is the gift of a great work of art.

Melville reportedly became enraged when someone suggested that his story about the giant white whale was an allegory. In this context we can understand his pique. An allegory is a one-to-one correspondence, a primary order. An allegorical whale converts into the category of Satan (or God) and nothing more. An allegory lacks the folding-back this*other-ness dynamic that embraces the force of the primordial order as it folds and unfolds through our primary order.

That dynamic is thoroughly apparent in the Winnebego Trickster cycle mentioned earlier. In one story Wakjunkaga is a victim, in the next a victimizer; he metamorphoses from an apparent exemplar of undifferentiated consciousness into a satirist of the onerous aspects of community life. A literary metaphor, Wakjunkaga dances and spins primordially, always other than our attempts to fit him into a primary order. At the same time, however, he reaffirms that the stage he spins on is the primary order. He returns us to the this-ness of life even as he reveals that it is always other than we believe it to be. Like two mirrors facing each other, their reflections hurled back and forth at the speed of light, Wakjunkaga's movement shows us something right before our eyes that is beyond our vision.

The dynamic order of this*other-ness also unfolds in great works of music. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony provides a simple example. Recall the opening four notes and the dramatic effect that follows when the composer repeats the first three and then changes the next (note 8). Those first four notes are the first term of a metaprime. The notes 5 through 8 are the second term. The metaprime asserts, in effect, that the two terms are identical and then leaves us shocked by their difference. As the symphony progresses, Beethoven orchestrates chains and nests of metaprimal figures echoing this initial metaprime everywhere in the piece and creating a reverberation of this*other-ness throughout.

In his Harvard Lectures, Leonard Bernstein employed Chomsky's theory of transformational grammar and an idea of literary metaphor to describe how musical figures evolve in a work through a kind of simultaneous comparison-contrast. Slight changes in a figure or theme create opportunities to compare the figure to its transformation. Each time the figure reappears it is perceived as simultaneously similar and different because it has been inverted or transposed or diminished or run through a different section of the orchestra. In referring to the repetition with variation he found in Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, Bernstein said:

First, not one of those repeats is an exact or literal repeat. Each one contains some slight variation or other--a slight elaboration, or an added voice, or a structural ambiguity, or a change in the dynamics of loud and soft. And second, what is variation, anyway? It's always, in one way or another, a manifestation of the mighty dramatic principle known as the Violation of Expectation. What is expected is, of course, repetition--either literal or in the form of an answer, a counterstatement, or whatever; and when those expectations are violated, you've got variation. The violation is the variation (Bernstein 162).


The order within the musical composition is peculiar. On one side, the musical form allows us to discern a relatively invariant pattern, an accomodation of our primary order consciousness. But on the other side, the compositional pattern always violates and subverts our expectation, evoking our primordial awareness. The result is that the composition seems always to extend beyond itself and beyond our ability to comprehend it or even apprehend it in its immediate presence. Even as it is right before us in our primary awareness, it slips from our grasp.

In her novel The Bluest Eye Nobel Laureate Tony Morrison portrays the random events that shaped the life of one of her characters, Cholly Breedlove. The scenes of these events contain strong images: a watermellon, asefetida bag, images of being humiliated in the sexual act by a white man with a flashlight. Morrison captures the unifying order of this*other-ness when she writes:

The pieces of Cholly's life could become coherent only in the head of a musician. Only those who talk their talk through the gold of curved metal, or in the touch of black-and-white rectangles and taut skins and strings echoing from wooden corridors, could give true form to his life. Only they would know how to connect the heart of a red watermelon to the asafetida bag to the muscadine to the flashlight on his behind to the fists of money to the lemonade in a Mason jar to a man called Blue and come up with what all of that meant in joy, in pain, in anger, in love, and give it its final and pervading ache of freedom (Morrison 129).

In the order of this*other-ness, the contradictions and fragments of the life come together and create a whole which is immediate and familiar--yet also dreamlike and beyond the network of knowledge or explanation. The emotion created by or expressed in the order of this*other-ness is unlike those emotions arising from our genetics or conditioning. Though deep and passionate, the aesthetic emotion contains an "aesthetic distance," a quality of impersonality. The emotion is both intensely subjective and objective at the same time.

I seriously doubt that a mechanism or algorithm can explain the origin or function of the order of this*other-ness, as an order of consciousness. I've read at least one consciousness theorist who has taken note of the mind's capacity for making analogy and metaphor and tried to incorporate it into his depiction of conscious mechanism. But the problem is that an algorithmic theory can't account for a simple fact implicit in what I've just described about artistic order. Every artist knows that some metaprimes "work"--that is they actualize this*other-ness--and some don't and that sometimes the metaprimes which fail to work seem far more colorful and dramatic than the ones that succeed. Success is measured by a sense of Truth in the metaprime, a sense of being. In other words, the metaprime provides a glimpse of both the lines of the grid and its spaces. A metaprime that evokes a sense of Truth or being requires that the terms composing it be similar to each other and dissimilar from each other in precisely the right balance for the context. If that balance isn't achieved (one that creates the proper "violation of expectation" as Bernstein called it and sets off a this*other-ness dynamic), the metaprime falls flat. In that case, the juxtaposition of terms seems either a primary order 'this' (a colorful description of something), a primary order 'other than this' (an idea or allegory), or nonsense (the two terms don't seem to fit together at all). Certainly computer could be programmed to randomly equate dissimilar terms. Undoubtedly it would generate nonsense, banalities and some occasional striking metaphors. However, only a human mind could tell which of those metaphors rang true and which were merely striking or nonsense. To create an entire work that has the ring of truth means the artist must continually subvert her own abstractions, her own expectations, her own algorithms and her own nonsense. Poet John Keats described the truth or sense of being that results from this activity as a state of "uncertainties, mysteries and doubts" (Page 53). It is hard to imagine how any computer algorithm could accomplish such a state.

In a 1988 Scientific American article on art and the visual system, Margaret Livingstone pointed out how great visual artists exploit the feature detection, contrast detection and other systems in the vision system to create illusions. For example, according to Livingstone, in the so called "color-selective blob" part of the visual system which abstracts "lower acuity" visual information, "two colors can have entirely opposite effects on each other depending on their spatial arrangement. When two different colors are juxtaposed, they normally oppose each other, so that each appears less like the other (that is, each tends toward the complement of the other). On the other hand, when the two colors are interdigitated in a fine pattern, there is an opposite effect: they come to look more like each other, that is, they blend or 'bleed.'" (84) Seurat and Monet, among others, exploited this system to produce striking effects of this*other-ness. Figures and terrain appear both solid and diffused, as if dissolving or materializing, or as if we were peering through the apparent solidity of the world into the quantum level. Seurat had to make dots of paint large enough to be seen by the form system, but too fine for the color system. Seurat's use of this technique wasn't programmatic, however, because he applies the technique to a greater or lesser extent in different areas of a piece. The result is that the kind of violation of expectation Bernstein referred to appears throughout a painting and makes it seem organismic.

I believe the ability to create and appreciate the order of this*other-ness proceeds from the deepest movements of nature. As an order of consciousness this*other-ness may be analogous to the natural order discovered by quantum mechanics. Perhaps the relationship of the primary and primordial operating within the metaprimes of artworks is analogous to the relationship of wave to particle in quantum reality--an irreducible paradox from the perspective of the primary order. Perhaps, too, an ironclad uncertainty principle governs artistic order so that we can never entirely pin down its movements with an algorithm. No one can tell us how to make a metaprime that is not reducible to an idea, a category, a judgment or an abstraction. No one can tell us how to craft one that is open and true. Artists and poets testify that the true metaprime--the one inculcating this*other-ness and being--remains something that happens to us, or through us, sometimes in spite of us.

Creators' often report that a work of art and, for that matter, a creative career, begins with an acute, irresistible awareness of this*other-ness. Henry James said that the "germ" which touched off a piece for him might be an odd phrase or stray thought, paradoxically both trivial and portentous. It was an "infection" which grew. Poet Jorge Luis Borges described both the initial feeling and the unfolding poetic process as the keen sense of an "imminence of revelation which is never fulfilled." (Alifano) Perhaps not surprisingly, unfolding the germ into a pattern, or web, of metaprimes results in an organic structure that mirrors in virtually every dimension this imminence of revelation never fulfilled--an organic ordering of this*other-ness, in other words.


This*other-ness seems to provide a window into the primordial order, into that movement of consciousness that propels us beyond our abstractions. But at the same time it seems to affirm the very primary order act of making abstractions. In its antinomous dynamic, I suspect that this*other-ness is really much closer to the real nature of consciousness than the sorts of primary order awareness Western science has tended to research.

I suspect that at various levels we experience the this*other-ness of the world all the time. We experience that the things we identify as categories of thought and perception are also not those categories; we are aware that the lines on our grids have no meaning without the spaces which make the lines, like a spider's strands, appear a little dreamlike and frail. It is possible that such tacit awareness infuses all of our consciousness.

In a strictly materialist universe I can't imagine that what I've called the order of this*other-ness would offer a survival advantage. The main function of this order seems to be to encounter and represent in the mind the truth about being (a glimpse of both lines and space). It's not clear why this would be necessary to a Darwinian animal, though I'm sure resourceful adaptationists would be able to think up a reason and thus bring even this dimension of consciousness into the orbit of the reductionist program. Personally, I would prefer that this order in art and mind remain a mystery because that is what I think it ontologically is. But maybe you can't fight progress or city hall. Except by poetry.

So I'll conclude by lodging my protest against a merely primary explanation with some lines from a poem. Again, Wallace Stevens:


I was of three minds,

Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds


1 Antonio Damasio has shown that the idea of built-in and built-up mapping also applies to the domain of emotions. He divides emotions into two types. An example of the first type is fear. "We are wired," says Damasio "to respond with an emotion, in preorganized fashion, when certain [relatively invariant] features of stimuli in the world or in our bodies are perceived, alone or in combination. Examples of such features include size (as in large animals); large span (as in flying eagles); type of motion (as in reptiles); certain sounds (such as growling); certain configurations of body state (as in the pain felt during a heart attack). Such features, individually or conjunctively, would be processed and then detected by a component of the brain's limbic system, say, the amygdala..." (131).

A second class of emotions, such as melancholy and shyness, is composed, according to Damasio, of built-up nuances or permutations of the hard-wired emotional schema, new abstractions constructed out of memories, perceptual objects and situations.

2 Even the sense of embodiment involves a process of mapping. Edleman comments that the domain of abstracting processes discussed by Lakoff provides "a basis for linguistic meaning" within consciousness. Lakoff argues that consciousness possesses "container schemas (defining a boundary, or 'in and out'), a part-whole schema, a link schema (one thing connected to another, as by a string), a center-periphery schema (as in body center versus arms and legs, and a source-path-goal schema (starting point, directional path, midpoint) including up-down and front-back schemas" (249).

3 Psychopathologies may also derange the primary order. In a psychotic episode an individual may imagine himself as an atomic bomb, understand a coke can left on a subway as the sign of a vast conspiracy against him, or speak in a "word salad" of ideas. Though such behavior appears to unabstract the primary order, it is really a deformed, often especially rigid, form of mapping. For the most part I would not include psychiatric maladies as examples of the of the primordial order at work, though it may well be that the prevalence of mental illness in the west is a sign of our almost total reliance on primary order consciousness and it may suggest that derangement may result from such an extensive reliance.



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