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How We Know Ourselves: c. In the World

We know our bodies intimately. It is through our bodies and our nervous systems that we are aware of and come to know anything at all. But in a sense our bodies are a zero-point, and even how we feel about our bodies and our place in the world may depend heavily upon where we are in the world, and how the world, other people in particular, respond to us and make us feel. My body is always located somewhere, and although language and technology make it possible for me to experience and think about things far distant in space and time, I always come back here to when and where my body is actually located, in particular to what is directly available to me. Sitting in my study is much of the flotsam and jetsam of a scholarly and academic career of roughly forty years. I love my space, the book-lined walls, files and papers, journals and magazines in piles with varying degrees of categorization and organization. I am writing on a laptop on my desk, with a cup of coffee in easy reach, though I get engaged enough that it can sit mostly untouched. Visiting someone’s home, particularly the sanctum sanctorum of a space which would tell someone much about someone living a life of the mind, is always deeply informative to a visitor who has time to spend here, but it also is the background which tells me much about who I am, and who I have been, the years of education, the reading and research, and the discipline of order and organization that served me so well in my academic career. So too, the memories evoked of a corpus of work, of classes taught over decades, of colleagues and conferences, and institutional locations, both physical and abstract.

I actually found it a bit disturbing when I realized, doing an analysis of “personal projects” which I had also assigned to students, that so much of my time and energy was spent by myself sitting at a desk, or in my reading chair with books stacked on either side. Who was it, Gabriel Garcia Marquez who said “I always thought paradise was a kind of a library.” I do think my metier was in front of a classroom, my anxiety bound when I knew my class preparations were ready. My mastery of the material was sufficient to leave notes and papers only a comforting anchor as I presented myself in my own true nature, as an intelligent and long-educated, and educating man, however ignorant, thinking on his feet, working with a deep litany of ever-developing knowledge, thinking, and experience. This I could bring to bear to make material come alive for students, or for conference audiences, scholarly and otherwise. This is when I felt the most alive, the most like a god. Post-professorial, the experience is most often indirect, re-evoked in speaking engagements, but more often than not in close conversations, especially with the tete-a-tetes, as well as heart-to-hearts, full not only of the stories, but of their telling. The face-to-face of emotion and mimesis, all of the repertoire of nonverbal, emotional, and gestural overlays that make the conversations come alive, embodied and expressive, the uttering forth into the space of shared minds, shared hearts, shared bodies, including the tastes and smells it is almost impossible to evoke in memory, but are only real in the present, the physical presence of someone, of bodies seen, heard, and even touched. That is the living world of ideas and feelings that is only re-evoked in written form, re-imagined in images and stories. For me, really, much of the best of life was not only in front of a class or an audience but in close and often extended conversations that might only be interrupted for a while when each of us has other things, and other people, to attend to. Some of these, my genuine friends, still continue, or like any conversation with old friends, can pick up where they left off months, even years later. I remember once re-engaging so intensely that three years of absence evaporated like dew, and our intimacy felt timeless and unaffected, like it would transcend death.

Yes, and there are many, many spaces, many many experiences outside of the quotidian desktop, kitchen table, coffee table, seminar or consulting room. There is where I have to be, where I “gotta go,” and what I have to do which is so compelling, in the absence of which it is so hard to discipline one’s life. But there are also the symposia of eating together, along with the colloquia of conversation. There is the rapid heart rate and strain of muscles as I climb a hill on my bicycle, and see the grandeur of a landscape before me. There is the cyborg symbiosis with automobiles, speeding down the highway, a yet different set of skills in a long walk, a hike on a wooded trail, the fields of sport, the courts of competition. I can swim, I can be riding a paddlewheel down the river with my son, rowing a boat, or even, these days, riding a jet-ski across a Grand Cayman bay, or a tour boat down an African river past pods of hippopotami. I can fly across the country, or across hemispheres in a high flying aircraft, or even fall freely a mile or so above the earth, to drift with a parachute back to mother earth. I can hear a symphony, dance to rock-and-roll, drink a glass of wine looking over a Tuscan Valley, or the Indian Ocean. I can lift my shrieking son in the air to “kiss the sky,” or feel the warm embrace of my loving wife at the tired end of a long day. This is all part of the consciousness and experience, of a mind that is not just located inside of a black box in the head, but with a whole body that can be situated in a much wider world, with a much longer history. I need not dwell, for now, on the dark side of hunger, of bodies damaged by the harsh, hard edges of reality, or the frightening and deadly technologies of modern weaponry. But those, too, those experiences of pain and loss, of suffering and death, are also part of that larger mind. All of these can also be re-evoked, re-experienced, at least in part, in memory and in story, which can also evoke memory, resonance, and experience even in those who were not present, or even alive.

Embodied selves are always located in some situational context or other. Even if their minds are elsewhere, the brains and bodies doing the experiencing, the thinking, and even the dreaming have a particular place. “No body, never mind.” Res cogitans is embedded within and dependent upon res extensa. What mental activity is about is actions and events taking place somewhere and at some time, whether immediately present or not. One of my favorite quotes, displayed in the science center of the college at which I taught for 30 years, was Freud’s “Thought is action in rehearsal.”