Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Of Mnemes and Semes

The Philosophy of the Experiential

In a previous entry, I kicked the notion of qualia around a bit and ended up with the notion of the aestheme, a term paralleling words such as phoneme or grapheme and basically decomposing to aesthetic morpheme. What with semes in the mix too, it looks like rhyme is the name of the game here, but hey, works for me. Besides, qualia sounds like a fucking Roman slave, so fuck that. Ancient Greek suffixes FTW!

Anyways, having taken yon wee digression through suppositional logic, ontological bootstrapping and a defense of atheism from an accusation of faithiness ("It's just like truthiness... only now even less true!") I figured I'd get back on the road I was wandering down from Plato's cave via universals, entity, narrative, sensation and ideation to... well, I guess with this all being kicked off by reading PKD's Exegesis, it's the morphological realm I'm trying to get back to, but reconstructed in terms of virtuality rather than spirituality -- eschewing any non-physicalist essentialist flummery of the mental that's really just a reiteration of that perennial pseudo-substance, spirit. It's a useful metaphor that pseudo-substance, and as a poet I'm happy to throw it into the mix, but it is just a metaphor. What we really need to be talking about are the actual substantia of aesthemes and semes, the stuff of our sensation and ideation considered as narrative.

This takes us then into the territory of some other -eme words, into the domain of mnemes, semes and memes.

From Max Stirner's '"spooks" to Richard Dawkins's "memes," the last century or so has seen the emergence of the notion of the culturally active notion. Vide my post on narrative and entity, particularly with those two opponents of institutional dogma, it seems to me an anagnorisis of the antagonist in their personal narrative. The stories have started to come out in which story itself is the enemy -- grand narratives and discourses gone bad. It's not hard to see my own concern with story writ large in Vellum and Ink, where it'd be a mistake to look at all the metafictional shenanigans as mere postmodern gameplaying, art about art. If, as I suggest, the very identification of entities is an artifact of experience as narrative, then to take fiction as subject for fiction isn't about retreating inside the ivory tower to ponder the ivory tower itself; it's about heading into the labyrinthine foundations of it all -- ontology, epistemology, ethics... all of these as branches of aesthetics, not as the philosophy of beauty but as the philosophy of the experiential.

It's a territory pointed at by Hume in the notion of ideas developing from impressions -- ideation from sensation, to stick with the parlance I've been using. And with qualia reconstructed to aesthemes now, maybe we can start to lay down at least a broad overview of that terrain, something a little less fuzzy than "senses" and "ideas."

A Brutal Balletic Battle

First things first then, when we talk of senses we're talking a whole lot more than the famous five. We're talking about the external senses that model the environs: sight; sound; smell. We're talking about the threshold senses that sit on the effect horizon of the entity, where the external and internal are mutually defined in a relation not of simple transition but of intrusion: smell; taste; touch; heat; pain. We're talking about the internal senses that model the entity itself: pain; kinaesthesia; balance/acceleration; nausea; orgasm; other interoception faculties.

But we're also talking, I'd say, of the attitudinal senses that do so in a way that brings ideation into the picture via import long before we have the semic structures we'd generally think of as ideas: joy; sorrow; anger; fear; esteem; disgust; intrigue; surprise. Elsewhere, I've made some (highly) speculative sorties into the notion of an affectspace broadly comparable to colourspace, constructed from something akin to opponent processes. And I've blathered as to how I reckon such stuff might build up into a proper agency. So I won't reiterate that. Suffice to say, I reckon there's an interzone between interoception and introspection, a degree to which we seem to model psychophysiological responses -- e.g. the fight/flight response -- in a sense of our own stance, so to speak, affect as attitude. And with this we have the basics of modality -- epistemic, alethic, boulomaic, deontic. We have sensation becoming judgement, an inherent import in the ongoing articulation rendering it ideational.

We're even talking, at this base level, of what I'd term reflective senses, a framework of aesthemes with the rather elusive quality of the tail a dog tries to catch in its teeth, aesthemes we have to spin round on ourselves to try to pin down, leaving us a little dizzy in the process: duration; recollection; capacity; realisation; metasensation. Is the sense of time really a sense in its own right? I'm not wholly sure, to be honest, what it's fair to call a sense here and what it isn't. But note that studies of the experience of déjà vu seem to indicate that there's a distinct aesthetic "tag" fired during the act of recollection, a sense of being in the state of recall; the theory is that déjà vu is basically revealing this in the dysfunction, the accidental misfiring of that aestheme when no recollection is taking place. What I'm suggesting by talking of capacity as a sense is the similar sensation known as presque vu, the "tip of the tongue" sense of being right on the verge of getting it, a sense of tension, of potential on the cusp of realisation -- realisation which has its own "tag" in that "Eureka!" sensation.

Which would also, I might add, give us anagnorisis -- recognition -- not as some anodyne abstract ideation, some purely intellectual identification of sense with memory, but as a raw sensation of import, as a potentially profound charge of meaning loaded into sensation, bound to it. We begin to see a rethinking of thought itself here, I reckon, away from the sort of procedural mechanics implied by the association of thought with intellect, toward a turbulent dynamics which is so overshadowed by the mechanics of semantics introduced by language that we tend to dismiss those processes as the liminal undercurrents of intuition. Where we're talking of mentalese, maybe we need to forget the syllogisms of propositional logic, I mean, imagine instead the dialectical agon of suppositional logic, a brutal balletic battle driven and driving onwards by and through the flux of activity.

Maybe what I'm suggesting is that my theory of narrative modalities with its alethic, epistemic, boulomaic and deontic quirks is only a reflection in fiction, a virtual articulation, of the dynamics of mind itself -- ideation as the thematics of sensation, as a fundamentally visceral feature of animal existence. A dance from stance to stance to stance, whirling, catapulting, diving, blasting ever-onwards. Where ego is, there id could, can, would, will, should, shall, must, might, may be. Deep among and emergent from all else that could, can, would, will, should, shall, must, might, may be.

From Id to Ideation

Still, this is a reconfiguring of ideation so far from the common usage of the term, so far from our general notion of ideas, that it's maybe a stretch too far to even apply the term. I'm sorta thinking that volition is a better fit, to be honest, for this volatile involution of sensation I can't help but imagine as swashbuckler -- amoral agency immersed in the moment, living the buccaneer's Tao of libido unbridled but complexified by the inherently social desires wired into that libido, the essential empathy, the lust for care and camaraderie, that turn rat into rogue, rake, rapscallion. If readers of Vellum & Ink recognise Jack Flash in this description, you're not wrong. That archetypal figure is my own articulation of a recurrent symbol of the id.

Not of the id in the Freudian sense per se, I should note, and not an archetype in the Jungian sense per se. I don't really gell with Freud and Jung's essentialising and compartmentalising approach(es), the treatment of these aspects of sentience as innate organs. Me, I'm treating the libido not as some hidden pool of repressed desire, the id not as some secret subconscious agent, but rather casting these as wholly conscious, wholly substantiate in sentience, not existing outside it, under it. Libido is simply volition in this model, the "unconscious" mind only determinedly disregarded volition.

Which is to say: we don't want without knowing that we want; all we can do is drown out the desire, distract ourselves from it, repress it by rendering it liminal. For me, the idea/image of id as discrete unconscious mental organ is an artifact of an effect horizon projected onto self-structuring sensation, like a dance at a ceilidh. The point of this is that a shadow archetype is, I reckon, an alternate idea/image of the same volitional matrix, or of a particular facet of it, cast as monstrum. Indeed, these archetypes themselves, I'd argue, can and should be decomposed, understood not as some Major Arcana of set universal tropes but as articulations in a recombinatory symbolic language.

But we'll come to that. To get there, first we have to get to the idea of recombinatory symbolic language. For all the semic underpinnings of sensation, even the inherent import I'm tracing out in affect as stance, comparing to the epistemic, alethic, boulomaic and deontic modalities of statements, it doesn't seem quite right to cast these aesthetic processes as semiotic. We still don't, as I say, have what we really think of as ideation. But add the practical faculties of manipulating experience, recall (i.e. memory) and recombination (i.e. imagination) -- with the senses of recollection and capacity as aesthetic tags for these perhaps? -- and maybe we've got the stuff of ideation proper, constructed out of impression as per Hume. The stuff that semes are made of, one might say.

From Mnemes...

I'm inclined to bring in Richard Semon's notion of mnemes at this point, memory traces left by external-to-internal experience as permanent records invoked by the recognitive faculty on encountering comparable experience. Coming to this second-hand, I can't say how literally we're meant to take the term "trace" there, but from my understanding, memory appears to be distributed -- theorised as holographic by some even -- so we're not talking potato prints in the brain. Whatever the theoretical specifics though, those mnemes were also dubbed engrams by Semon, the term that survived into neuropsychology -- and was co-opted to the complete bollocks of Scientology -- so I reckon there's an opportunity here to leave the technical details of engrammatic memory to the actual scientists, and resurrect this obsolete term which fits neatly into the old -eme scheme. In other words, I'm going to nick Semon's term out of the trash, shake off the questions of actual mechanism, and treat the mneme as virtual entity so I can develop it a little.

In that Notes from New Sodom column linked above, see, it strikes me now that what I was reaching for was basically the mneme, but as node in a network, inherently interconnected, the whole mnemic archive of the memory correlated for isomorphisms on the fly and under constant revision. Isomorphisms in events parsed into the effect horizons of beings, doings and attributes thereof. The narrative dynamics of modality permeating it all, imbuing the collective entities so circumscribed with import as antagonist, obstacle/tool, goal and so on -- those roles perhaps decomposable to modalities indeed, the quirks of real-life.

I seem to be muddling around in territory I also explored in a post from a couple of years back riffing on the idea of notation versus signification, connotation versus denotation, import versus content. Approaching the same basic idea from this angle, it might well be easier to get at what I'm aiming for there by mapping that contrast of notes versus signs to mnemes versus semes. We'd begin then with the memory trace invoked by an encounter with comparable experience as the basic note, a recognitive sensation struck by repeat sensation -- the mneme as the first taste of cocoa recalled by the second, as both recalled by a third, the cumulative effect rendering the mneme a palimpsest of reiterated impressions. We don't just have a note; we have multiple voices singing that note. From here we get associations, connotations, deep import -- the marshmallows in the cocoa, the pyjamas worn at bedtime, the mooching dog, the feeling of warmth -- the complexifying effect rendering the mneme a collage of resonances. We don't just have a choir singing the same note; we have harmonic notes being sung, massed voices forming a rich chord.

The mneme of /dog/ as a gestural totality then, the palimpsest of all instances of recognition, like multiple photos morphed/blended into one another, blurred to crude morphology. With the memory trace of a dog, all dogs, functioning as icon, here we have the beginnings of semes as mnemes made classes -- or something like classes -- invoking the mneme of dog akin to instantiating a virtual object of that class. That core note would be anchorpoint in the collage of all associated mnemes -- e.g. /fur/ or /barking/ -- most of these liminal, tangential, but many integral, so inextricably co-notative we can say that this mneme is an attribute (e.g. /fur/) or method (e.g. /barking/) of that (e.g. /dog/). The boundaries of any mneme are just a matter of effect horizon, after all: what are the edges of a memory?

... To Semes

Bearing in mind that the associative recall of these palimpsested and collaged impressions is taking place within the context of the volitional dynamics driven by affect, assuming a capacity to let mnemes invoke mnemes in free associative chains, I reckon you have all you need for an ongoing recombinatory articulation of iconic semes that can cut loose in the creative and strategic process of ideation, as the stuff of memory becomes the stuff of imagination.

Now we just need a forced association of /dog/ with "dog", an integration of these similar to that between /dog/ and /fur/ or /dog/ and /barking/ but established arbitrarily, reinforced by repetition, so that one connotative binding can become a binding of signification. With repetition, the ideational mneme /dog/ gains the acoustic mneme "dog" as a value in the list of values set for the attribute of mnemes that invoke it, so to speak. Maybe the acoustic mneme rises to the top of that list because that association is hammered home. Maybe it's a separate list for arbitrarily invoking mnemes, for arbitrarily invoking acoustic mnemes. Maybe it's a distinct attribute of mnemes that are used to invoke it in a specific way, mnemes used purely as symbolic pointers to that mneme, as handles for it.

So the acoustic mneme becomes a seme where it is used as handle for an ideational mneme, for the sake of efficiency in articulation. Articulation may be more ergonomic if the largely attribute-less acoustic mneme "dog" is all the imaginative faculty needs to to deal with in a given instance. If you're mainly just dealing with the "dog" mneme as a semic handle for the ideational mneme /dog/, if you're leaving the ideational mneme itself on the shelf, it's like dealing with an index card representing a scene in a novel rather than the actual MS pages. It's less cumbersome, takes up less space on the desk. And the more one is focused on the process of structuring mnemes rather than on any individual mneme in its own right, the more logical it is that we'd want a technique for backgrounding /dog/ like this.

So we end up back at "universals" where the ideational mneme of /dog/ is left indeterminate, non-particularised because the invokation of it that takes place with the use of the seme "dog" is superficial. We don't really need to deal with the full import of /dog/ when we're reading or writing something like, "The dogs bark, and the caravan moves on." But of course if we do stop to deal with the ideational mneme in its own right, to hold it in our imagination is to keep the note ringing, focus in on it to find the resonances of specifics. Hence the old arguments that if we try to fully imagine a universal, we always end up imagining a specific instance of one: it's just a matter of how fully is fully.

And if a seme like "dog" does have this ideational mneme not as a simple denotational content but as a complex connotational import, we're dealing with a system that's not just complexified by différance. It's not simply that meaning is based on difference and always already deferred, not just that we can't pin the referent of a seme down because it's defined ultimately by negation, by distinction from all other semes in the system. It's that the deep import of a seme, the connotative charge, renders it always already a unit of story, of a superposition of stories. My /dog/ sits in a superposition of stories that involves eating socks, biting black plimsolls, digging under fences, puking in the back of cars, barking at the words "horses" and "squirrels," and various other details just too damn specific for you to share. What "dog" means to me is not what it means to you, and what it means is linked to what "socks" and "plimsolls" and "fences" and "cars" and so on mean, the totality adding up to one big superposition of stories. As one of PKD's favourite terms in his Exegesis renders the personal world as the idios kosmos, we each have a personal world of signs, an idios semiocosm, so to speak.

Not that my idios semiocosm is so wildly idiosyncratic it's wholly alien to yours. Stories are shared after all, passed on from one person to the other. But that takes us from mnemes and semes to the third of those -eme words mentioned at the start: memes. And to the whole notion of a story I tell you about dogs not just reconfiguring the deep import of "dog" for you, but doing so in such a way that you're driven to pass that story on, reconfigure the deep import of "dog" for others.

But I'll leave that to the next installment of Duncan's Crazy-Ass Philosophy of the Experiential.

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