Dimensions of Apeiron
A Topological Phenomenology of Space, Time, and Individuation
Steven M. Rosen
Value Inquiry Book Series of Editions Rodopi, May 2004http://www.rodopi.nl/senj.asp?BookId=VIBS+154
This book explores the evolution of space and time from the apeiron—the spaceless, timeless chaos of primordial nature. In the pages to follow, I examine Western culture’s effort to deny apeiron, and the critical need now to lift the repression on apeiron for the sake of human individuation.
The selections to follow highlight the various manifestations of apeiron on the contemporary scene. In quantum mechanics, we see intimations of apeiron in the curious phenomena of quantized action and miniscule strings found in subatomic space. Apeiron is seen at play in the cosmological oddity of the black hole, in the perils of modern technology, and in the addictive quality of postmodern culture at large. In all cases we harbor the fear that this primal force will negate human reason and individuality. But the upsurgence of apeiron is in fact an opportunity to advance the process of individuation. Apeiron embodies the ambiguity at our core that must be brought to light and consciously processed if we are to attain fulfillment as human beings. Only by setting aside all the categorical "isms"—dualism, reductionism, idealism, etc.—and consciously holding the paradox of apeiron can the whole person gain concrete realization.
The excerpts appearing below are taken from the Preface, Chapters One–Three, Chapter Five, and the Epilogue. Selections are separated by ellipses to mark breaks in the text; where necessary, I parenthetically refer the reader to the full text (indicated by "DA"). To be sure, a few pages of excerpts cannot do justice to the many dimensions of apeiron probed in the book. Not included is the philosophical development of my thesis via the approaches of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, or my attempt to flesh out their phenomenological accounts of space, time, and human individuality by appealing to the topological paradoxes of the Moebius strip and Klein bottle. For a more complete picture then, the book as a whole is indispensable. But the passages chosen should at least suffice to convey a vivid sense of apeiron’s crucial role in the challenge currently facing humanity.
THE CONTEMPORARY CRISIS
Change itself changes. Over the last 150 years, it has assumed a qualitatively new, more emphatic form. The continuous orders of change that were characteristic of earlier times have given way to a thoroughgoing discontinuity, and this has affected virtually every sector of modern life: popular culture, art, literature, science, mathematics, the media, etc. (see Everdell, 1997). The gradual evolution of our social, political, and economic institutions has been disrupted by the onset of multiple crises that have thrown many of these systems into disarray. There has been a disintegration of family and church. The ethnic conflicts that rage around the world today reflect a destabilization of national identity. We have seen an alarming growth in international banditry and terrorism. World markets have reached new levels of erratic fluctuation. Nuclear weapons and waste are proliferating out of control....Thus it has gone. As a consequence of all this, "fragmentation is now very widespread, not only throughout society, but also in each individual" (Bohm, 1980, p. 1). Alberto Melucci observed accordingly that, given "the surging flux of events and relations…[t]he points of reference used by individuals and groups in the past to plot their life courses are disappearing" (1996, p. 2).
Taken collectively, these cultural discontinuities constitute the crisis of postmodernity. Just what happened to precipitate the dilemma? Was it a particular event? Was it a set of events occurring in certain places at certain times that led us to this pass? I suggest that what happened was a transformation of our experience of space and time themselves. At bottom, it is the sense of space and time that began to be fragmented in the middle of the nineteenth century. The introduction of non-Euclidean geometry, the advent of Impressionist art, the Einsteinian revolution in physics (to give a few preliminary examples) all bear witness to the impending breakup of classical space. Along with this, "[o]ur experience of time undergoes increasing fragmentation....Linear time yields to an experience of transitions without development, to a movement between disconnected points, a sequence of fleeting moments" (Melucci, 1996, p. 9). The old sense of smoothly passing from past to present to future becomes a spasmodic leaping ahead into a boundless array of divergent possibilities. In short, the contemporary experience of space and time entails the "shock of discontinuity"—to cite John Berger’s and Jean Mohr’s (1982, p. 86) characterization of the shocking effects of photography that were especially evident when the medium was first conceived in 1839.
Assuming that the mid-nineteenth century unsettlement of classical space and time has in fact contributed to our current state of turmoil in a significant way, how can we better understand it? I suggest that the nineteenth century watershed betokened the reappearance of an old nemesis. Western culture was forged from the struggle of human reason with the irrational forces of nature. To early Greek science and philosophy, nature in the wild is apeiron. This is the Greek word for what is "limitless," "boundless," or "indeterminate." The apeiron is variously interpreted as "the unintelligible; the many; the moving; the ugly; the bad…the inchoate flux of opposites or contraries…the principle of disorder or disharmony" (Angeles, 1981, pp. 14–15). In its sheer boundlessness, apeiron defies containment within the ordering contexts of space and time. To the early Greeks, this posed a considerable challenge. For, in the unconstrained many of apeiron, there can be no one; in its chaotic multiplicity, there can be no unity, no stable center of identity, no indivisible core of being, no individual. So it seemed to the early Greeks. It was therefore imperative for them to tame apeiron, given the primary impulse that motivated their action. To paraphrase Protagoras, "man must be the measure of all things." What this basically required was the ascendancy of the autonomous individual. More generally stated, from the outset Western culture has been spurred by the drive toward differentiated being or individuality, toward individuation. Achieving this end essentially has meant containing what at first appeared uncontainable: the boundless apeiron.
The proposition I submit is that apeiron, after being held at bay for over two thousand years, has now returned with a vengeance. This, I suggest, is the dilemma that underlies postmodernity. The disruption of space and time, and, along with it, of all the "points of reference used by individuals and groups in the past to plot their life courses" (Melucci, 1996, p. 2), thus seems to point to a total unraveling of centuries of progress in human affairs. All that we have gained seems threatened; all seems on the verge of being lost. But appearances can be deceiving. What I propose is that the upsurgence of apeiron—far from indelibly spelling the demise of human individuality, actually offers us the opportunity to bring it to fruition….
QUANTUM MECHANICS AND APEIRON
At the close of the nineteenth century a ground-breaking experiment on the phenomenon of light was being conducted. Max Planck was investigating blackbody radiation, the emission of electromagnetic energy in a completely absorbent medium, a closed cavity that does not reflect light but soaks it up, then discharges the energy internally. Classical theory faced a perplexing difficulty here. If the traditional analysis was correct, energy should be transmitted in a smooth and continuous fashion. Yet this assumption leads to the peculiar prediction that, if a non-reflective body is exposed to intense heat, it should radiate an infinite amount of energy—a result that clearly is not borne out by empirical observation. Planck responded to the contradiction by boldly amending the underlying classical assumption. He proposed that light, rather than radiating in a smoothly continuous manner, is transmitted in discrete bundles, quanta. This introduction of discontinuity into the theory now brought a remarkable correspondence with empirical data. The new quantum theory could predict laboratory findings to a high degree of accuracy by adding just one parameter, h. This is the constant of proportionality that relates the energy (E) of a quantum of radiation to the frequency (v) of the oscillation that produced it: E = hv. The numerical value of h is 6.63 X 10–34 joule-seconds. The extremely small value of Planck’s constant is consistent with the fact that, in the familiar world of large scale happenings, energy does appear to propagate in a smoothly continuous fashion. It is only when we "look more closely," examining the microscopic properties of light, that we notice its discontinuous, quantized grain.
It took a generation for the truly revolutionary implications of quantum mechanics (QM) to become clear. Under the lingering influence of classical thinking, it was natural to assume that the discontinuity of energy was not really fundamental. For, if the properties of a quantum of energy were to be subject to complete scientific determination, it seemed as if the discontinuity ultimately had to be reducible to continuous expression via an underlying space-time substrate. Yet, by 1930, most physicists had arrived at the conclusion that no such reduction is possible. At this point, the majority of researchers felt obliged to accept the idea that Planck’s microscopic quantization implies a basic indivisibility of energy that confounds analytic continuity, and, in so doing, calls into question all classical thinking about space and time, including that of Einstein. Therefore, in light of quantum mechanics, "the concepts of spatial and temporal continuity are hardly adequate tools for dealing with the microphysical reality" (Čapek, 1961, p. 238).
The microscopic loss of continuity may be better understood by considering more closely Planck’s constant. This number in fact may be expressed as an action. The value h is transformed from a mere numerical quantity into "spin," that is, internal angular action (momentum), by the application of phase, as given in the formula h/2P = h . Here h is operated upon by a phase of 2P radians, equivalent to a turn of 360°. In quantum mechanics, h is termed the quantum of action. It is an indivisible "atom of process," one not reducible to smaller units that could be applied in its quantitative analysis. Thus, at the sub-microscopic Planck threshold of 10–35 meter, the analytical continuity of space gives way to a "graininess" or discreteness that admits of no further quantitative determination. We see here the intimate relationship between the indivisibility of the quantum domain and its basic indeterminacy or uncertainty. According to the well-known uncertainty principle postulated by Werner Heisenberg in 1927, there is a built-in limit to the information we can obtain about the physical properties of quantum systems. This limitation can be stated in terms of Planck’s constant: D pD q » h , where p and q are variables such as position and momentum, or time and energy (variables that are paired or conjugated so as to be essentially indivisible from each other). The formula says that the product of the uncertainties (D s) of such paired terms approximately equals (cannot be less than) the value of Planck’s constant. Clearly then, the phasic indivisibility (h/2P ) of Planck-level action is equivalent to its uncertainty (D pD q).
There is another way to look at the quantum uncertainty. Nearing the sub-microscopic Planck length, it appears that precise objective measurement is thwarted by the fact that the energy that must be transferred to a system in order to observe it disturbs that system significantly. This well-known "problem of measurement" in quantum mechanics expresses quantum indivisibility in terms of the indivisibility of the observer and the observed. It seems that, in QM, the observer no longer can maintain the classical posture of detached objectivity; unavoidably, s/he will be an active participant. Evidently this means that quantum mechanical action cannot be regarded merely as objective but must be seen as entailing the intimate blending of subject and object.
The ultra-microscopic research on light at bottom seems to suggest that, when we move down the scale of magnitude to the Planckian threshold, the spatial container becomes "leaky," loses its continuity, and apeiron resurfaces. The classical expectation, rooted in the assumption of continuity, is that scale shrinkage eventually brings us to the null volume of the dimensionless point. At this level of nature, all material bodies lose their extension and vanish. As a consequence, space becomes vacuous and cold, devoid of energy or matter. Quantum mechanics presents a dramatically different picture of microphysical reality. Instead of energetic nature being totally subdued, she returns with a vengeance. As the philosopher-physicist David Bohm put it, in classical physics, "the field changes over very short distances are negligibly small," whereas, "in the quantum theory…the shorter the distances one considers, the more violent are the quantum fluctuations associated with the ‘zero-point energy’ of the vacuum. Indeed, these fluctuations are so large that the assumption that the field operators are continuous functions of position (and time) is not valid in a strict sense" (1980, p. 85).
The vacuum fluctuations that disrupt classical continuity are of course associated with Planck’s constant, which embodies the indivisibility of action, irreducible uncertainty, the inseparability of subject and object. This wild variability of nature in the small is reminiscent of the "irrational motion," the "fleeting potencies and constantly changing tensions" (Graves, 1971, p. 71) of Plato’s tenuously continuous receptacle [see DA, Chapter One]. With the Renaissance, Platonic proto-space was superseded by a new order of space, one whose continuity was enhanced. It was this order that was called into question by Planck’s blackbody research. Did Planck and his successors actually accept the discontinuity? Did quantum physics give up Einstein’s effort to uphold objectivism? Did it embrace the indivisibility of object and subject that betokens apeiron?
The nineteenth century threat of discontinuity and concomitant loss of objectivity constituted nothing less than a threat to the life of the cogito (Descartes’s term for the thinking subject). To accept apeiron would be to accept the collapse of the projection upon which human identity had come to depend. It is therefore not surprising that Planck could accept apeiron no better than could Einstein. The fact is that quantum mechanics did not simply give up on the continuum. Instead, implicitly, the attempt was made to retain spatial continuity through an approach that is even more abstract than Einstein’s….
STRING THEORY AND APEIRON
Among the latest efforts to sidestep apeiron is a theory that has attracted widespread interest in the scientific community and beyond: string theory. The basic idea is: What we can’t know can’t hurt us. That is, if it is impossible for us to probe the cataclysmic energies allegedly prevailing below the Planck length, then we are entitled to assume that said energies either actually do not exist, or that they exist but cannot influence us, and, therefore, can be completely disregarded. The physicist Brian Greene—in his attempt to explain "how string theory calms the violent quantum jitters,…tames the sub-Planck-length quantum undulations of space"—acknowledges the positivistic nature of this strategy: "A positivist would say that something exists only if it can—at least in principle—be probed and measured" (1999, pp. 156–158). Because "the violent sub-Planck-length…fluctuations cannot be measured…according to string theory, [they] do not actually arise" (pp. 156–157).
Strings are "tiny, one-dimensional filaments somewhat like infinitely thin rubber bands, vibrating to and fro" (Greene, 1999, p. 136). How long is a string? It is roughly the size of the Planck length. By supposing the string to be the basic constituent of nature, string theory precludes any movement below the Planck length, into the chaotic realm where infinities would arise to shatter the continuum.
Greene poses the question, "What are strings made of?", and answers it as follows:
[S]trings are truly fundamental—they are "atoms," uncuttable constituents, in the truest sense of the ancient Greeks. As the absolute smallest constituents of anything and everything, they represent the end of the line….From this perspective, even though strings have spatial extent [my emphasis], the question of their composition is without any content. (1999, p. 141)
Is there not a contradiction here? Does the notion of a fundamental particle with finite extension really make any sense? For, to be spatially extended is to be cuttable, in fact, infinitely divisible [see DA, Chapter One]. How then could a string be a fundamental particle, an indivisible ingredient of nature, when it is spatially extended? Perhaps, when Greene speaks of the string as he does, he has some unusual definition of "spatial extension" in mind. If that is the case, we are given no hint of it. Consequently, we are left with the default meaning of "extension," the classical intuition of it that entails the idea of being divisible. The string, then, is an indivisible particle that is divisible—a contradiction to be sure….
What the contradiction at the heart of string theory discloses is that, in the final analysis, apeiron—"the inchoate flux of…contraries"—cannot be denied. Does this preordain a simple regression into chaos? I suggest that it does not. I propose that the apparent self-contradiction of string theory in fact might entail a certain dialectic of transformation.
It is clear by now that apeiron had never been truly eliminated in the cogito’s strivings for individuation. Instead, the chaotic element in nature merely had been relegated to the background via the idealizations of science. In the contradiction of string theory, apeiron now enters the foreground in an irrepressible way. Yet I submit that the attendant threat of wholesale regression lies not so much in apeiron per se, but in the continuing attempt to deny her. It is in resisting what actually can be resisted no longer that catastrophe threatens. The ongoing resistance is certainly understandable. To the cogito who clings to his detached stance, apeiron can only signify the complete loss of individuality. But it is surely not the case that the cogito had ever fully achieved individuality (his idealized projections to the contrary notwithstanding). I propose that it is precisely when apeiron is accepted that the process of individuation can be completed in earnest. By no means does such an acceptance involve passively resigning oneself to dissolution in the chaotic multiplicity of apeiron. It turns out that one can actively participate in the many of apeiron without losing oneness, and that, in fact, oneness (unity, individuality) can genuinely be achieved only through said participation. What is called for here is a dialectic of the one and many that favors neither the unity of fixed form nor formless multiplicity. A dialectic of transformation is required.
Were this approach to be taken to string theory, an unacceptable contradiction could become a fruitful paradox. Elsewhere (Rosen, 1988, 1994), I attempted just such a dialectical reformulation of the dimensional underpinnings of the theory. Carrying this out effectively involves nothing less than a radical transformation of the foundations of science. Specifically, the Baconian enterprise of subduing Mother Nature, imposing unity upon Her from afar, is supplanted by an endeavor in which we seek to understand Nature from within, by participating freely in Her flowing diversity. A good indication of this is given in the Nobel Prize winning work of biologist Barbara McClintock. In marked contrast to the detached, dispassionate attitude of the Cartesian scientist, McClintock immerses herself in the natural world, gaining an intimate feeling for the plants that she studies. Evelyn Fox Keller refers to McClintock’s uniquely empathic scientific orientation as "allocentric perception" (1985, p. 119), or, more plainly put, as "love" (p. 164). According to Fox Keller,
McClintock can risk the suspension of boundaries between subject and object without jeopardy to science precisely because, to her, science is not premised on that division. Indeed, the intimacy she experiences with the objects she studies ... is a wellspring of her powers as a scientist....In this world of difference, division is relinquished without generating chaos. Self and other, mind and nature survive not in mutual alienation, or in symbiotic fusion, but in structural integrity. (1985, pp. 164-165)
In such a dialectical rendering of science, while unity does not simply dissolve, neither does it prevail in the one-sided terms of the alienated cogito. Instead there is a unity-in-diversity, a diversity-in-unity….
BLACK HOLES AND APEIRON
Strictly conceived, a black hole is an astrophysical phenomenon, but I suggest we can view it both in the literal terms of physics and as a metaphor for the contemporary implosion of psyche and society.
The black hole is a "cool" phenomenon, as media theorist Marshall McLuhan (1964) would say. It is the implosion that follows the explosive phase of a star’s history, when the impetuous heat of its "youth" has given way to more sober gravitational concerns [see DA, Chapter One]. Speaking in broader cultural terms, McLuhan is telling us that it is the human ego that has imploded. Since the end of World War Two, the limitations of the ego have certainly become more difficult to deny, and human experience has changed accordingly. Yet, if phenomena like pop art, the "anti-hero," and "rap" express a new mood of iconoclasm that reflects the ego’s recognition of its own finitude, the hole at its center—at the very same time, the ego also still seeks "coolly" to deny that hole. This sums up the essence of our postmodern age: an implicit recognition of our emptiness that simultaneously strives to deny it. Yes, we sense the hole more clearly now than the modernist did; the hole at the center of our being has become so transparent that it scarcely can be ignored. Yet, "playing it cool," we nevertheless continue our denial, but now in such a way that its very quality of ineffectual repetition actually accentuates the gnawing emptiness at the core of us [DA, Chapter Two].
The black hole is indeed a "cool" phenomenon, at least when viewed from the "outside," that is, from the standpoint of the life of the star, whose extroverted energies have now dissipated. We know, however, that the interior of the hole is hardly lacking in energy, albeit of an introverted, implosive sort. The further we go into the heart of the black hole, the greater this crush of gravity becomes, until a marked turbulence sets in. The dynamic flux in question is not that of an event taking place in space and time; rather, it is the flux of space and time themselves. What this means is that spatiotemporal discontinuity attends the movement to the singular core of the black hole (as indeed it does with movement below the Planck length); concomitantly, there is ambiguity, all-pervasive uncertainty. When the core is finally reached, the chaos no longer can be contained. The infinite gravitational energy confronted at the center of the black hole is of course the energy of apeiron. [See DA, Chapter One, for a discussion of the relationship between black holes and the sub-Planckian microworld.]
It is apeiron that the ego confronts with the postmodern implosion of Western culture, and apeiron that it seeks most desperately to deny. Long has this "Black Goddess" (Woodman, 1996) been repressed, for she threatens the very life of the rational being. The existence of homo rationalis is predicated on an assumption that itself has been obscured for centuries. Never enunciated but always taken for granted is the supposition that "man" has contained "Mother Nature" and now stands free and clear of her. It is this posture of detachment and power of containment that most essentially defines the individual. He maintains himself as an in-dividual—as he who is one, undivided, unitary—by containing her. At bottom, this is what science’s quest for unity has been all about.
Plato’s "leaky vessel" had been a tentative step toward containment. Descartes and Newton did far better. With them, apeiron was so well bottled up that there was not so much as a hint of her. But then, in the middle of the nineteenth century, just when the work of science seemed on the verge of completion, just when Mother Nature was to be fully contained once and for all, the container gave evidence of fissures. For a hundred years thereafter, we did our modernist best to plug the leaks, to keep the genie in the bottle—until the fateful morning of 6 August 1945. That morning more than any other, with its frightful unleashing of mushroom-shaped chaos, perhaps best symbolizes the failure of containment. Yet this flattening of an entire city was only the beginning of the end, for the thermonuclear outpouring of energy in fact was contained, limited as it was to a relatively small geographical area. The tidal wave of energy set free by opening up the atom is but a droplet in the ocean of energy that seethes beneath the sub-atomic limit of the microworld, beneath the Planck length. This is the "zero-point" energy, the energy of the black hole, the unbridled fury of the "Black Goddess." If that energy were set loose, the container that would be exploded would not be confinable to a region of space since it would be space itself that would explode. Where then would the energy "go"?
Containment and detachment are integral aspects of the same process: by the same act in which the subject seals its object into space, its seals itself out, separates itself from that object. It is clear then where the primal energy would have to flow were the spatial seal to be broken. Shattering the spatial container means ending the division of subject and object; therefore, the energy that had been bottled up in containing apeiron as but an object would now overflow the ontological boundary, flow freely back into the subject. The ambiguous blending of subject and object intimated earlier would now be realized in full. With this "flooding" of the subject, the world as we have come to know it—that premised on the detachment of the subject—would come to an end.
No wonder the specter of apeiron is so fearsome to behold. It is not just the lives of particular individuals that seem to be at risk here, but the overall process of individuation that has marked the progress of humanity for thousands of years. Then does the coming to presence of the black hole necessarily foreshadow the complete regression of our species? Does the vision of the "Black Goddess" betoken the unavoidable demise of rational thinking, of language and reflective individuality? Are these gifts that define the unique heritage of humankind simply to be lost? Earlier I hinted that apeiron—far from merely signaling the end of individuation—is the key to its genuine completion. Before I am finished, I intend to make this clearer….
ADDICTION, TECHNOLOGY, AND APEIRON
Consider the form of addiction that involves taking risks. The gambler keeps coming back to the casino because of the intoxicating high s/he gets in a situation where, again and again, s/he knows the thrill of passing from extreme ambiguity to one-sided clarity—even when the clarity is gained by losing. For, it is not winning or losing per se, but the act of resolving ambiguity upon which the addiction is based. Therefore, the greater the ambiguity that is created, the more satisfying is its resolution. It seems that electronic addiction works in essentially the same way. The high I get from watching TV or operating this computer depends on the inherent ambiguity of these media [see DA, Chapter Three]. I obtain higher resolution, a higher, more vivid definition of what is experienced (as in high-definition TV), by virtue of the fact that the underlying digital micro-technology—involving as it does a closer approximation to the Planck length—entails greater uncertainty. From this we can better understand why quantum mechanics has been so successful. The unprecedented precision of microphysical research derives from the fact that it resolves unprecedented levels of uncertainty. In short, the more chaotic the system, the more markedly discontinuous the quantum leaping, the more order and continuity appear to come out of it when the ambiguity is resolved.
What we are now able to see is that postmodernism’s addictive high does not come simply from avoiding the irresolvable ambiguity of concrete apeiron, but from simulating that ambiguity abstractly, in a resolvable form. With every character I type on this keyboard, the underlying ambiguity of the microprocessor is resolved, and, because that ambiguity is so high, this reduction of ambiguity I am engaged in elevates my mood. Nevertheless, at the same time that heightening ambiguity brings heightened levels of reward when the ambiguity is resolved, it also brings me closer to the point where the ambiguity cannot be resolved by my one-sided self-deceptions. That is why these electronic feats of levitation that I perform have such a tenuous feel to them. It is why, like Wiley Coyote, I dare not look down, lest the screen go black, the computer crash—as it does tend to do. In this way, we go from "booting up" to "crashing"—or "shooting up" to "crashing," in the case of the drug addict and the stock market. When we examined the history of modern physics [DA, Chapter One], were we not dealing with the very same transition from resolvable to irresolvable ambiguity, from drunken levity to sober gravity? Proceeding ever more deeply into the microworld, higher and higher degrees of uncertainty have been encountered in physics, along with ever more spectacular precision—until the Planck length has been reached, whereupon the equations have gone infinite, precision has been utterly lost, the ambiguity no longer being resolvable. Since QM’s irreducible ambiguity is associated with problematic gravitational effects (quantum gravity), we may well say that this high-flying scientific discipline has now crashed into a black hole. And yet, physicists are still attempting their feats of levitation (as in string theory). It is true in general that, while the same addictive substances that make us high assure our fall, we keep coming back for more. What else can we do in the virtual world of postmodernity? Though we get drunk on every one-sided choice we make, soar to the giddy heights, only to crash back down again, is there any other viable option short of what seems wholly unthinkable to us: to truly and fully accept the ambiguity of our existence?
This ambiguity doubtlessly betokens apeiron. She draws closer to us now than ever before and we tremble in her ominous presence, going to any extreme to avert her Medusan gaze. Alongside the addictions of science, technology, and popular culture, a similar one-sidedness predominates in contemporary philosophical thought, as we have amply seen. Beyond Derrida, who has been our exemplar [DA, Chapter Three], we find the pattern variously operative in the cultural deconstructions of Jean-François Lyotard and Gilles Deleuze, in Julia Kristeva’s subversion of patriarchal psychoanalysis, in the hyper-skeptical philosophy of Richard Rorty, and in the "language games" of Ludwig Wittgenstein, to name a scant few. Postmodernity’s "game of the world" (Derrida, 1976, p. 50) is surely a head game, excluding as it does apeiron’s dark body….
It is the disembodied head that now rules us in the head games of our lives. We are addicted to the rationally clear and clean; to categorial purity—"addicted to perfection," as Marion Woodman (1982) puts it in her Jungian reading of the contemporary epidemic of anorexia that shrivels the human flesh (particularly the flesh of women). The greater the ambiguity, the more desperate we are to reduce it, to the point where we are willing to pay for "clean-cut" value and meaning by cutting ourselves down to the bone.
My own addiction is obvious to me in the conceptual game that I have been playing for many years now. It is the game that governs the present writing. All too often I deceive myself, seeking perfection one-sidedly, striving for the purity of simple closure. It is what I am tending toward now, as I draft this text. In searching for the perfect words and phrases to turn this thinking process into a cleanly finished product, I am frequently so fearful of the messiness and murkiness of apeiron that there are moments when I can barely bring myself to write anything at all. It is hardly surprising, given the fundamental ambiguity of my subject matter, and indeed, the ambiguity of this cybernetic medium in which I work. What a "high" I get when it appears I am on the verge of bringing order to this chaos! And how often I have fallen from the heights of "categorial clarity" into the yawning abyss. It is then that I feel the ache of an active emptiness. Continuing in free fall, I feel totally exposed and vulnerable, wholly without support. There is often a mood of sheer desperation that accompanies my ongoing crash into groundlessness, an urgently felt compulsion to find something—anything!—to hang on to. When this happens, every instinct tells me to break the fall, to reach for some overhanging ledge and cling to it for dear life. But would that not amount to still another effort at denying apeiron? It seems then that some existential "sky-diving" is in order. In aiming to surpass modernism and postmodernity alike, we must stay in "free fall," however perilous that may appear to a panicky cogito like myself. The "pull of gravity" surely is strong. It is an impulse that no ground can stop, since what draws us in is the black hole. Yet, despite our grave trepidations, it seems we must find a way to accept the dark chaos of apeiron….
THE TEXT, THE ‘I’-PERSONA, AND APEIRON
In what specific way would our apprehension of this text have to change in order that we consciously engage apeiron here and now? Yes, it is generally true that, to reach the apeironic ground of these words, the "master word"—the "I" that centers all our thinking—must itself be apprehended [see DA, Chapter Five]. Relevant in this regard is David Bohm’s call for the "proprioception of thought," which he saw as a certain kind of meditative act wherein "consciousness...[becomes] aware of its own implicate activity, in which its content originates." What I would now add to what I said about this in the previous chapter is that such a reversal of thinking’s gear would have to be grounded in the body. But can anything more be said about just how we are to enter the body? In Eugene Gendlin’s experiential approach, we are advised to enter the body through the middle: "Let your attention refer inside, directly, physically, to the comfort or discomfort in the middle of your body" (1991a, p. 45), say, in your "chest [or] stomach" (1996, p. 1). The alternative I suggest so as to facilitate the proprioception of the thinking body that governs this ontological writing is that we enter the body through the head. My proposal is based on the work of the American social psychiatrist, Trigant Burrow.
In the foregoing chapter I noted that, years before Bohm, Burrow had spoken of the need for human beings to gain proprioceptive awareness of the organismic basis of thinking and language, these being the activities Burrow deemed responsible for the fragmentation of human society. Burrow’s term for the "I" anonymously engaged in ceaseless objectification is the ‘I’-persona. Importantly, the functioning of the ‘I’-persona has a distinct anatomical locus. It is centered in what Burrow called the "cerebro-ocular" region (1953, p. 526), that is, in the cerebral cortex of the brain and in the organ of vision associated with it. Burrow pointed out that it was through the phylogenetic development of the cerebral cortex that language and symbolic activity first arose. Therefore, to gain an immediate sense of this activity, it seems one would have to "enter the body" through the cerebrum. But this conclusion was informed by more than a simple logical deduction. Burrow claimed to have had a spontaneous experience of the ‘I’-persona’s bodily base, one that profoundly influenced all his subsequent research. After a prolonged period of inter-personal strife involving the members of the group that he had established to investigate such "I"-based conflict, he began to notice a distinctive pattern of tension around his eyes and forehead. Burrow recognized in this the concrete expression of the ‘I’-persona.
From the Burrowian perspective then, the proprioception in which we must engage to make tangible contact with the grounding of this text entails bringing attention to the ocular-facial or "cephalic segment" (1953, pp. 249–254), that is, to the area of the body around the forehead and eyes. Burrow would caution us not to confuse the ‘I’-persona that resides therein with the ego of the allegedly isolated individual. We might say that this persona is the species-wide "subject" that lies behind the appearance of individual subjectivity. But while it is through the ‘I’-persona that we, as a species, create the impression of ourselves as merely isolated, disembodied subjects, the generic "I" itself is no disembodied subject. Instead, it is the bodily process that is central to human functioning as a whole. Therefore, when Burrow became attentive to the ‘I’-persona rather than continuing to be unwittingly governed by it, he experienced this palpable pattern of tension around the eyes and forehead against the "tensional pattern of the organism as a whole" (Galt, 1995, p. 31). He was thus presumably able to apprehend in an immediate way what he called the "solidarity of the species" (Burrow, 1953, p. 71)—what Merleau-Ponty called "the flesh of the world" [see DA, Chapter Four]—what we have called the apeiron.
Following his first spontaneous proprioception of the generic organism, Burrow sought to cultivate the experience in a systematic practice he named "cotention" (Burrow, 1932). He described his procedure as one of setting aside daily experimental periods in which he "adhered consistently to relaxing the eyes and to getting the kinesthetic ‘feel’ of the tensions in and about the eyes and in the cephalic area generally" (1953, p. 95). Burrow might say that—behind "my" work with this text, behind "my" typing of these very words—the master word or ‘I’-persona operates, and that this generic "I" manifests itself concretely in the muscular activity of "my" eyes. It may well be easier to proprioceive movement in other parts of the body than in the eyes; since ocular activity is subtler, a great deal more practice may be necessary. Nevertheless, if Burrow is right, it is proprioception of the activity in and around "my" eyes that would be required for generic proprioception [also termed Proprioception in DA]. So it seems that, if "I" am to go beyond functioning exclusively as an "abstract head," "my" practice evidently would have to include obtaining a bodily sense of the very "head" that now directs this writing.
As "I" write these words then, I am to turn my awareness to the tensions in my eyes behind which lies the "master word," the "I"….
In this work I have sought to explore at its roots the fragmentation of human culture so pervasive at this juncture of our history. I began by reading the litany of woes currently besetting humankind. These problems are all too well known, and I will not repeat my recitation of them here. In summing up, what I want to reiterate is what I believe to be the crux of our dilemma, and the sea change in human functioning that is needed to address it.
Why is it that, despite the good intentions of a great many highly intelligent, talented, and inventive individuals throughout the world, our problems only seem to be increasing, and in fact appear to be rapidly reaching ominous proportions? I propose it is essentially because, however well-meaning we have been, what "we" have never fully questioned is this very we. That is, in our valiant efforts to remedy our grave situation by achieving an insight into it, we have failed to gain sufficient insight into the prime players in the drama: ourselves. But haven’t the more reflective members of our species been searching their souls from time immemorial? It is indeed true that, ever since the rise of reflective consciousness, we have been seeking to know ourselves—as Socrates exhorted over two thousand years ago. This is what our quest for individuation has been all about. What I am suggesting, however, is that this quest has always been frustrated because human reflectivity has always been geared to turn whatever it seeks to know into an object, including itself. In this way, it has alienated itself, even as it has striven for self-intimacy. It is our self-alienation then, I submit, that has brought us to the brink of catastrophe.
In the present work, I have proposed that the self-knowledge required for grasping the true nature of our predicament demands that we take an unprecedented step. We must effect a radical "reversal of gears." The reflective individual must break the centuries-old habit of moving away from himself toward his object, must move back into himself to the prereflective source of his reflection. There he will find that he is not merely a free-standing subject after all, nor is he merely an object. Instead, "he" is the embodied fusion of subject and object that constitutes the paradox of apeiron. So—if effectively addressing humankind’s current crisis and advancing human individuation means gaining self-knowledge—it is apeiron we must come to know.
There is no denying that such knowledge will be hard to come by. In thinking apeiron, we will need to rethink ourselves from the ground up. Conventional thinking will have to be turned upside down and inside out. To come to know apeiron, we will need to think dialectically, to engage in hybrid blendings of thought that transgress long-cherished categories, indeed, that fly in the face of categorial thinking as such. Only through such apeironic self-knowing will we be able to deal with the fragmentation presently tearing us apart. That is my conviction. Wholeness is what we require, an epistemic healing or "epistemotherapy" (Rosen, 1994; de Quincey, 2002) that, in moving us toward individuation, re-grounds us in the lived body. Indispensable to such an aim is the thinking of apeiron….
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