Tag Archives: cognitive science

Connie Deanovich’s Essence of Saint

the poem, then a brief essay

Requirements for a Saint

think of a saint
and you think
of the incredibly dull clothing of a saint
perhaps extreme temperatures
or the difficult terrain they travel
(everything about a saint draws attention to itself)
think of a saint
and your thought is not
of a train thrusting through lightning
but of wind that smells of wood
or a wet disease
(saint world is the world of the empty hand)
breath is sometimes banged out of copper
and so is a saint
often with bell attachments
I’ll make you a saint
from an unblemished code book
that must be read
in a German restaurant
where beer is served in glasses
wrapped in brown leather
when the cuckoo strikes twelve
this will be the moment
of ascension

Connie Deanovich, from Watusi Titanic (New York: Timken, 1996)

        When I think of Connie Deanovich’s “Requirements for a Saint,” I think of chairs—or rather, the chair, the mental image of the one that can reasonably represent the entire category of chairs. I see in my mind’s eye Van Gogh’s straw chair or my idea of a generic dining room chair. Actually, there’s no such thing as a completely generic chair (a visualization has to look like some kind of chair), but rather chairs of our quotidian experience. What I don’t automatically see is a lounge chair, an antique commode chair, or Lily Tomlin’s giant rocking chair. Continue reading

Part 2: “I hate my birthday!”—Or, what do elegies by New York school poets have in common with the story of an Italian anarchist?

Yesterday, I wrote about the ways in which the tip-of-the-tongue experience is helping cognitive scientists to learn how the mind stores and retrieves information. When we struggle to remember something, we will sometimes begin with the conviction that we remember a fragment, such as the first letter of a name.

This phenomenon demonstrates to researchers that information about a word or other kind of memory is likely to be stored in different locations in the brain: aural sound of a word in one location, meaning in another, and spelling in yet another. Somehow, they coalesce regularly and rapidly. But sometimes they don’t: we might know the meaning of a word that is trying to surface, but the word itself remains in hiding. The knowledge that our unconscious mind knows more than we consciously know, and knows it sooner than we know it, is an eerie thought. It brings to mind Antonio Damasio’s succinct statement of the tardiness of conscious knowledge: “We are always hopelessly late for consciousness” (127).

And sometimes the process of remembering leaves traces, clues of its mysterious origins and ways, demonstrating the imbalance between conscious and unconscious thought and proving once more that the unconscious mind knows more and knows it sooner than the conscious mind. And this is what really fascinates me: becoming aware that some pre-conscious part of my brain seems to be trying to tell me something, to throw little hints my way until the memory surfaces and I experience the eureka moment.

“I hate my birthday!”
A memorable instance of this kind of pre-conscious associative process occurred a few years ago when I was traveling with a friend in Europe. During our stay in Italy, we visited Francesco, a friend who lived near Padua. The three of us had a terrific visit. We chatted at his apartment for a while, and then Francesco showed us a printing press where he and some friends edited an anarchist newspaper.

Our next destination was the South of France to see friends in Montpellier. As the train passed through Provence, I gazed out the window at fields of poppies and lavender. I became aware that there was a memory that was trying to surface in my mind, but when I tried to remember what it was, I drew a blank. I knew that it was something that had made an impression on me, that it was somehow important to me. And whatever it was, it was tinged with sadness.

As I watched the colourful fields pass by, wondering about the elusive memory, the following phrase occurred to me:

      heavenly fields of poppy and lavender

This phrase gave rise to this sentence:

      But the people in the sky really love /
      to have dinner and to take a walk with you.

I knew this to be from an elegy for Frank O’Hara by Ted Berrigan.

Again I made an effort to recall the mysterious memory, but no other thoughts arrived. I still had the feeling that a memory wanted to surface. Then the feeling saddened and more words arrived:

      I hate that dog.

I remembered that sentence as the last line in an elegy for Ted Berrigan by Ron Padgett. The poem describes hearing a dog bark in the night and feeling the emptiness of Ted’s absence.

I thought it curious that both lines that surfaced in my mind were elegies for poets. Somewhere in my brain there must be a file with the label “elegies for poets of the second generation New York school.”

The clues from this mental file were leading me toward my memory, and the last clue, “I hate that dog,” was the catalyst that allowed me to remember what had been trying to surface:

      I hate my birthday.

On remembering these words, I experienced a eureka moment: this was the memory that had been lurking in the depths of my unconscious! It was also a poignant moment when I remembered what had occasioned Francesco’s speaking those words.

During our visit with Francesco, I showed him a cd that I had bought in Paris of the French anarchist singer Léo Ferré. Francesco told me that Léo Ferré had died several years before, in 1993. I was surprised and saddened, because although I didn’t know much about Ferré’s life, I had come to love the music of this “anarchanteur.”

Francesco then spoke of an Italian anarchist singer, Fabrizio de André, who had died just a couple of years earlier, the date of his death unfortunately coinciding with Francesco’s thirtieth birthday. So great was Francesco’s admiration for De André that after the singer’s death, he hated his birthday.

So the original elusive memory did eventually surface, but it took a circuitous path involving lateral associations. It was as though my brain were tossing little clues along the path: it knew what I didn’t know, and it seemed to be in dialogue with me, coyly leading me in the right direction.

It seems to me that the memory that “wanted” to surface was always the same memory: Francesco telling me of hating his birthday because De André had died on that day. I felt that this was so because of the eureka moment that I experienced when the memory finally surfaced. And the various memories that surfaced along the path to remembering that event were like stepping stones leading to Francesco’s statement about hating his birthday.

The first stepping stone was gazing at fields of poppies and lavender from the train and thinking of them as “heavenly.” “Heavenly” suggests the mythical abode of the dead, and the path that led from “heavenly fields of poppies and lavender” to “I hate my birthday” follows a certain logic having to do with remembering one’s fallen friends and hating something that one associates with that friend’s death. So the associative chain might look something like this:

lavender and poppy fields desire to remember

desire to remember heavenly fields

heavenly fields heaven

heaven friend’s death

friend’s death hate things reminding me of that death

hate things reminding me of that death hate birthday

If by chance you have actually made it to this point in my little essay, you may wonder at my meditating on this memory in such detail. If I do, it is because the more I find out about the workings of the mind, the more strange and wonderful it all seems. I find it so incredible that in our daily lives we make associations without thinking about them much. But if we stop to think about how the mind actually gets from A to B, things become very complicated very quickly!

There is just one more thing I want to consider. Earlier, I characterized the unconscious as having agency: it tossed little clues in my direction and coyly led me in the right direction. I know that it’s misleading to personify my unconscious that way. After all, is it really accurate to suppose that my unconscious “knew” the identity of the memory that was “trying” to surface and “concocted” a logical path of stepping stones for me to follow? If that were true, then why would my unconscious “withhold” the memory and tease me with clues?

It seems more likely that my conscious mind started guessing about the identity of the memory, shooting out trial electrical impulses to neurons that might be associated with the memory of Francesco hating his birthday. After all, the fact that the emotional aura of the memory was present from the beginning means that I knew something about the memory, just not the memory itself (perhaps similar to knowing that a word you’re trying to remember starts with the letter “b”). As Lehrer points out in the essay that I cited in Part I, the mind “makes guesses based upon the other information that it can recall.”

In other words, the meta-cognitive knowledge that I wanted to remember something was unable to link directly to “I hate my birthday.” Somehow, the direct link at that time was too weak. However, there were stronger links from “I hate my birthday” to the indirect categories that I listed above.

So perhaps my conscious mind got to “I hate my birthday” by guessing along a kind of zigzagging path. That scenario is certainly less eerie than imagining an unconscious with agency, regardless of whether it’s beneficent or malevolent! But it takes nothing away from the strangeness of the mind’s ways.

As a tribute to De André and Ferré, below are links to videos of each in concert.

Works Cited

Damasio, Antonio. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. Heinemann: London, 1999.

Camille Martin

Part 1: From Motorcycle to Biopsy: The Messy Desk of the Mind

Copernicus, Darwin, Freud:
hacking away at the pedestal
(with a pit stop at Total Information Awareness)

Freud traces the history of scientific revolutions as one of successive blows to “the naïve self-love of men.” In one blow, Copernicus disabused humanity of its belief in the centrality of the earth in the grand cosmic scheme. In a second blow, Darwin knocked humanity from the pedestal of its belief in the divine creation of humans as privileged beings who rank far above animals and plants.

But Freud reserves the coup de grace dealt to “human megalomania” for “the psychological research of the present time which seeks to prove to the ego that it is not even master in its own house, but must content itself with scanty information of what is going on unconsciously in its mind.”

Freud’s reference to the “megalomanic” view of human consciousness brings to my mind that most sinister creation of the post-9/11 Bush administration: the Total Information Awareness Program (TIA), brainchild of John Poindexter and Brian Hicks, devoted to ferreting out information on the identity, location, and plans of terrorists. There is an aura of unreality to the hubris of their creepy fantasy of omniscience, which would be appropriate to the surveillance ministry of a totalitarian regime in a science fiction dystopia—say, 1984. “Total information awareness” also seems to me an apt, if hyperbolic, way to describe the folk-psychological tendency to attribute to consciousness greater powers of awareness, concentration, objectivity, and memory than are warranted by this relatively focused and limited aspect of cognition.

In a more historical vein, Enlightenment thinkers extolled human consciousness as a supremely rational “master in its own house.” The belief in the power and scope of consciousness must have erected an enormous pedestal for it—a butte might better describe it—because after decades of hacking away at it, scientists are still discovering ways in which our over-inflated assessment of consciousness is based on illusions. It’s humbling to read about the experiments that demonstrate the conscious mind’s limitations: working memory is more limited, awareness of perception is more selective, memory is more fallible and susceptible to distortion, and sensory perception is a more creative process than previously thought. These illusions remind me of the sobering truism that consciousness is only the tip of the iceberg of cognition.

And that iceberg beneath the surface, with its vast storehouse of information and its inner workings, remains for the most part tantalizingly out of reach. The experience of hypnogogic dreams sometimes gives me the feeling that I’m dipping into a part of its vastness and getting a glimpse of its machinations. But mostly I’m unaware of the means by which I’m constantly being fed bits and pieces from my unconscious mind by countless little creatures of the deeps.

The tip-of-the-tongue syndrome
A mental phenomenon that we all know as the “tip-of-the-tongue” feeling can give us insight into the mysterious relationship between the unconscious and conscious mind. In a typical tip-of-the-tongue moment, we are unable to retrieve information that we are sure that we could remember if only we had access to it. But the link seems to be faulty, and we struggle. Perhaps we remember that the word we’re trying to remember begins with a “b,” and we might try different syllables beginning with that letter to see if we can trigger our memory. This kind of experience reveals to researchers some fundamental lessons about the way the brain is organized:

      One of the key lessons of tip-of-the-tongue research
      is that the human brain is a cluttered place. Our
      knowledge is filed away in a somewhat slapdash
      fashion, so that names are stored separately from
      faces and the sound of a word and the meaning of a
      word are kept in distinct locations. Sometimes when
      we forget something, the memory is not so much
      lost as misplaced.

      The messy reality of the mind contradicts the
      conventional metaphor of memory, which assumes
      that the brain is like a vast and well-organized file
      cabinet. According to this theory, we’re able to
      locate the necessary memory because it has been
      sorted according to some logical system. But this
      metaphor is misleading. The brain isn’t an immaculate
      file cabinet – it’s more like an untidy desk covered
      with piles of paper. (Lehrer)

If my memory is anything like my own office desk, I’m in deep trouble. But conducting experiments into the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon can give us a glimpse into the way in which memory is actually stored—not neatly categorized but fragmented and scattered. In fact,

      the brain doesn’t have firsthand access to its own
      memories. Instead, it makes guesses based upon
      the other information that it can recall. For instance,
      if we can remember the first letter of someone’s
      name, then the conscious brain assumes that we
      must also know his or her name, even if we can’t
      recall it right away. This helps explain why people
      are much more likely to experience a tip-of-the-
      tongue state when they can recall more information
      about the word or name they can’t actually
      remember. (Lehrer)

In the study that Lehrer refers to, conducted by Lise Abrams, a person trying to recall the word “bandanna” can be successfully prompted with a word like “banish” because the latter word “activate[s] the same network of brain cells devoted to the sound” of the former. According to Abrams, tip-of-the-tongue experiences occur because the semantic connection is strong, but the phonological connection (the sound of the word) is weak. We have the feeling that we know what the word means, but we cannot speak the word.

And here’s where things get even more interesting: successful prompts need not be so direct. For example,

      Abrams has shown that showing people a picture
      of a motorcycle can help them remember the word
      “biopsy.” Because the idea of a motorcycle is
      connected in the brain to the word “bike,”
      which shares a first syllable with “biopsy,” the
      seemingly irrelevant cue becomes an effective hint.

Even when the subjects, asked to name the object in the picture, said “motorcycle” instead of “bike,” the tip-of-the-tongue problem of remembering “biopsy” was more frequently resolved than when a picture of, say, a helicopter was shown. So apparently, the proximity of “motorcycle” and “bike” in the brain can trigger the associative chain from “bike” to “biopsy,” even though one would be hard pressed to come up with an obvious associative link between “motorcycle” and “biopsy.”

Lyn Hejinian’s “incompletely reciprocal” lexicon
This kind of information flow reminds me of Lyn Hejinian’s remarks in “The Rejection of Closure” about lexical disjunction:

      Even words in storage, in the dictionary, seem
      frenetic with activity, as each individual entry
      attracts to itself other words as definition, example,
      and amplification. Thus, to open the dictionary at
      random, mastoid attracts nipplelike, temporal, bone,
      ear, and behind. Turning to temporal we find that
      the definition includes time, space, life, world,
      transitory, and near the temples, but, significantly,
      not mastoid. There is no entry for nipplelike, but
      the definition for nipple brings over protuberance,
      breast, udder, the female, milk, discharge,
      mouthpiece, and nursing bottle, and not mastoid,
      nor temporal, nor time, bone, ear, space, or world.
      It is relevant that the exchanges are incompletely

Although the analogy between Hejinian’s lexical disjunction and memory’s associative process isn’t precise, the idea in common is the sidereal associations that produce a circuitous path: the two degrees of separation between “mastoid” and “transitory,” and between “motorcycle and “biopsy,” result in two words with wildly different meanings but nontheless with a filament of associations connecting them. And it is possible for a chain of very selective indirect associations to lead us to the word that was on the tip of our tongue.

Tomorrow, Part II:
“I hate my birthday!”—Or, what do elegies by New York school poets have in common with the story of an Italian anarchist?

Works Cited

Abrams, Lise. “Tip-of-the-Tongue States Yield Language Insights.” American Scientist. May/June 2008.

Lehrer, Jonah. “What’s that name?” The Boston Globe. 1 Jun 2008.

Camille Martin

Extreme Inefficiency of the Rube Goldberg Machine: Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s The Way Things Go


everything’s more or less
rube goldberg

—Larry Eigner

The video above is only a short clip from a 1987 thirty-minute film of a Rube Goldberg machine that Peter Fischli and David Weiss constructed from ordinary objects such as tires, candles, fuses, tape, bottles, boards, rags, and chemicals—stuff that one might find lying around in a garage or basement workshop.

I thought it would be interesting to compare their machine with those entered in Rube Goldberg machine contests, such as the Japanese television show Pythagora Switch or the student competition at Purdue University, first held in 1947 and now in its twenty-second consecutive year (Townsend). The comparison might lead to some revelations about The Way Things Go by showing what it is not.

The element of competition, of course, creates an aura of sensationalism as the camera follows one event to the next. The souped-up hype of the Japanese announcer tries to increase suspense about whether the machine will move like clockwork until the final goal of the exercise in inefficiency is accomplished (cracking an egg into a dish, for example), or whether the machine will grind to a halt due to a broken link.

By contrast, The Way Things Go is not particularly suspenseful: early on in the film one can guess that this will be a documentation of a fully functioning machine. This lack of emphasis on suspense allows the viewer to concentrate on the metaphysics of causality and not on the relatively mundane thrill of nervous anticipation similiar to the car chase in an action/adventure film: will the chain of events set in motion by the car chase enable the hero to save the world and rescue the woman?

Also, Fischli and Weiss’s machine runs rather slowly in comparison to the relatively hyperactive machines in the competitions, which must hold the attention of a live audience:

The slower speed of The Way Things Go is partly a result of the larger scale of the machine, which the two men built in a warehouse. There is an expansiveness about the documented events that enables the viewer more time to meditate on the implications of such extreme inefficiency.

For me, the most compelling difference that sets Fischli and Weiss’s machine apart from the contest machines lies in its relatively nonrepresentational quality. In the case of the Purdue competition, points are awarded for the machine’s theme, for example, Jurassic Park, or this one based on the board game Clue:



But The Way Things Go is qualitatively very different from these examples. The causal connections are ingenious—that goes with the territory of constructing an imaginative machine of extreme inefficiency. Sometimes they are humorous, sometimes beautiful (the flaming cloth torch spiraling down a little pole like a blazing volleyball is particularly compelling aesthetically). Yet they never slide into preciosity with overt references to symbols (such as an arrow shooting a heart) or a doll-house-like miniature reality (such as a ski lift). The events in the causal chain remain fairly abstract. In the machine, things often do what they are intended to do in the real world (tires roll, catapults hurl objects, a torch sets a pile of straw ablaze), but these agents of change are less likely to remind the viewer of the experience of actual causal sequences beyond a single link in the sequence: the elements in the chain are fairly unrelated representationally.

This abstract quality of the machine allows the focus to remain on the idea of one thing causing another to do something—the “way things go.” This focus facilitates a wider field of possible associations as one wonders, What triggers catastrophes in the world? A war is started over a casual insult blown out of proportion, setting off a chain of events ending in mass slaughter. Chaos theory’s “butterfly effect” asks the question, poetically expressed in the title of a talk by Edward Lorenz, whether “the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil [can] set off a tornado in Texas.”

And there are countless other small “catastrophes” in the world that go on without our being aware of their processual underpinnings. For example, the sequence of events that results in a person seeing something is incredibly complicated. In The Amazing Brain, Robert Ornstein and Richard F. Thompson present a simplified illustrated tour of the process of vision, demonstrating the complex sequence of events that must happen in order for David to recognize his mother, who has come to visit him on his marble plinth:

How Vision Works 1

In a more than twenty-page guided tour that is reminiscent of a Rube Goldberg machine, the authors show the step-by-step process of sight, from an image entering the pupil to the inversion of the image by the lens, the projection of the image onto the retina, and the transmission of that information via the optic nerve to the visual cortex, where a complex system of layers and columns and neurons analyzes the information. After further complex processing in the brain, David recognizes his mother and smiles:



The authors point out that their “greatly simplified tour of an incredibly complex chain of events has taken as least several thousand times longer to read than the fraction of a second in which the actual event occurred” (129). Indeed, if humans had to be conscious of every decision that their bodies made, they would soon perish. Seeing a rhino about to charge  doesn’t suddenly turn a person into a philosopher but a runner. Through evolution, adaptive changes are selected that allow many functions and processes to take place routinely and unconsciously. Similarly, Fischli and Weiss’s machine suggests the complex network of events that lie beneath the surface of what we perceive to be a single, simple event.

And the events in their film also suggest the moment at which an object being changed reaches the point of no return: the “straw that broke the camel’s back” phenomenon. Within Fishli and Weiss’s delicately precise sequence, the point at which cause becomes effect can be identified or at least imagined. For example, sparks from fireworks shoot into the air, but only one spark is needed to travel far enough set afire the pool of gasoline a few feet away. Water pouring into a jar gradually fills it up, and the added weight of the jar causes the lever upon which it rests to move down. We can imagine that only a drop is needed to make the difference between stasis and motion. I’m reminded of the field of catastrophe theory, which studies small changes in a dynamic system resulting in large consequences.

The insights and pleasures of The Way Things Go are at once aesthetic, scientific, and metaphysical. The rough ordinariness of the objects draws our attention to the mundane phenomenon of causality that we take for granted on so many levels of our lives. There is a hypnotic beauty in the slow unfolding of events. And the abstract little machines within the larger machine facilitate meditation on the very nature of causality. I’m reminded of Galileo’s early experiments on gravity, such as the Inclined Plane Ball:

Galileo - Inclined Plane Ball

I imagine that a physicist would have many more layers of understanding of The Way Things Go.

Buddhist philosophy as well as science has a history of focused meditation on the nature of cause and effect. Nagarjuna, for example, a third century precursor of late twentieth-century deconstructionist philosophy, posits that causality is an illusion, since there is no essential quality of cause or effect residing in any particular agent of change.

And that brings me to the larger theme of the film: change, ephemerality. The chain moves from one event to the next in a seemingly endless series that explores the nature of change and, by extension, mortality. In a Rube Goldberg machine, as in a dominoes chain reaction, there is no going back. And the way things go is inexorably forward (to use a conceptual metaphor of time moving ahead of us). And since the links in the chain are displaced or destroyed in their implementation, the machine can be recreated only by constructing the machine afresh. The film evokes the trajectory and cycle of life, full of inefficiencies and absurdities, and shot through with the certainty of change.

Works Cited

Eigner, Larry. “Complexities (October 9 91).” readiness / enough / depends / on. Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2000. n.p.

Ornstein, Robert, and Richard F. Thompson. Illus. David Macaulay. The Amazing Brain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.

Townsend, Allie. “Rube Goldberg Machines Go Green at Indiana-Based Contest.” Popular Mechanics. March 31, 2009. http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/research/4311263.html

Camille Martin

Serendipity and the Felon: Jiri Kolar, Emmet Gowin, and the Cognitive Iceberg

A few days ago, I was searching for images by one of my favourite collage artists, Jiří Kolář, whose last name, pronounced in his native Czech, sounds like “collage” (no doubt an example of true serendipity). I found two images from his series “Three Graces.”

Kolar 1

Kolar 2

I have admired these since I was first exposed to the work of Kolář at an exhibition at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo. He uses as source material Raphael’s painting of the Three Graces holding the apples of the Hesperides, which are supposed to grant immortality.

Raphael, Three Graces

The depiction of the three Graces of ancient mythology traditionally shows two facing the viewer and the third in front of them, with her back to the viewer. Kolář seems to be playing with that traditional positioning, manipulating the bodies of the Graces using symmetry and mirror imaging so that the three seem to be merging into two in the first collage, and into one in the second collage.

Around the same time that I was studying these collages, I began thinking of Southern photographers, like Clarence Laughlin, Bellocq, and Emmet Gowin. A search for images by Gowin led quickly to a photograph very familiar to me, Nancy, Danville, Virginia, 1969, featuring a double-jointed girl who intertwines her arms in front of her and delicately holds an egg in each hand.


Here’s where the question of serendipity started to surface. I found correspondences between Kolář’s Three Graces panels and Gowin’s Nancy to be striking: both have an otherworldly, delicate quality, and both depict females with oddly manipulated or twisted arms, holding round objects in their hands. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the association was entirely serendipitous or whether my mind had been leading me to Gowin’s photograph by a process of nonconscious association.

It’s possible that the association was fortuitous, but I don’t think that the idea of an associative process unbeknownst to consciousness is too far-fetched to be plausible. I can demonstrate stranger and more involved associative pathways in which my nonconscious mind seems to be feeding me hints, like a criminal toying with a detective, until the detective experiences the eureka moment and the elusive felon once again slips away.

But how can we really know whether a particular association, like my pairing of Three Graces with Nancy, occurred by chance? Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga notes that the brain is like an iceberg: upwards of 90% of cognitive functions are not available to conscious awareness. This unavailability of much cognition to consciousness can make it seem as though there were another thinking entity (or perhaps multiple entities) within us, one that knows far more than our imaginary little conscious homunculus knows, and knows it before the homunculus gets clued in. Here’s an outdated depiction of how the mind works, with all processes coming together in a central location to be understood by a central processor (shown here as the homunculus):


Of course, there isn’t anything like a little person inside our heads, or anything like a control centre in the brain, a central processing unit where perception and thought come together and the will of the cognitive CEO gets executed. This dualistic fallacy is known as the endless regression of homunculi:

"The endless regression of homunculi. The idea of instruction or information processing requires someone, or something, to read it. But a similar entity is then required to read the resulting messages, and so on, endlessly." Gerald M. Edelman, <em>Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of the Mind</em>, p. 80

"The endless regression of homunculi. The idea of instruction or information processing requires someone, or something, to read it. But a similar entity is then required to read the resulting messages, and so on, endlessly." Gerald M. Edelman, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of the Mind, p. 80

After we have traced back our mental associations, the realization that something had been brewing in the deeps all along and that, as Antonio Damasio claims, “we are always hopelessly late for consciousness,” is unsettling. But I wouldn’t trade the dialogue with my teasing “felon” for a homunculus, or for serendipity, for that matter. In Kolář’s two collages, merging and symmetry have the effect, not of producing unity, but of accentuating disintegration. In the first collage, disembodied limbs and faces emerge out of nowhere, and in the second collage, the seemingly unified body is in reality disconnected from her head and feet.

Similarly, we can never merge our cognitive Graces or know them completely. That proposition once again buys into the idea of the mind as having a converging point of information, whereas scientists have discounted hierarchical and linear systems in favour of a multiplex system of connections that are “parallel, recursive, feedforward, and feedback” (Richard Cytowic, The Man Who Tasted Shapes, 156).

The idiom “my mind is playing tricks on me” aptly expresses the idea of a divided mind. Kolář’ plays tricks on our eyes with the mirrored image of the Graces merging towards a centre that can never unify them but only further discombobulate them.

I haven’t found a third panel in Kolář”s Three Graces series, but one can imagine that further unification of the image along the mirror’s edge would cause the Graces to vanish into thin air.

Unity is dysfunction, disappearance, stasis. A monotheistic brain cannot create a world.

Discombobulation is function, fertility.

And however mysterious and unavailable to consciousness are the tricks the Graces play on themselves, these tricks enable the mental associations from which we create our worlds. Like the girl holding the eggs in her twisted arms, they affirm creation and bring new realms into being.

Camille Martin

Laura Jensen: Degrees of Separation from Bad Boats

Mental associations are one of the big cognitive mysteries. Neurons connect in our brains almost effortlessly, without our being fully aware of the process. This morning a series of five associations led me from thoughts of Clarence Laughlin, the New Orleans surreal photographer who specialized in ghostly veiled women, masks, cemeteries, and antebellum ruins, to the title poem of Laura Jensen’s Bad Boats. How, exactly, does that happen?

And how’s that for burying the lead? Jensen’s poem hasn’t lost any of its appeal since I first read it about fifteen years ago.

“Bad Boats”

They are like women because they sway.
They are like men because they swagger.
They are like lions because they are king here.
They walk on the sea. The drifting
logs are good: they are taking their punishment.
But the bad boats are ready to be bad,
to overturn in water, to demolish the swagger
and the sway. They are bad boats
because they cannot wind their own rope
or guide themselves neatly close to the wharf.
In their egomania they are glad
for the burden of the storm the men are shirking
when they go for their coffee and yawn.
They are bad boats and they hate their anchors.

Laura Jensen, Bad Boats
The Ecco Press, 1977

Visit Laura Jensen’s blog:

Laura Jensen


Camille Martin