Sunday, 22 April 2012

Solipsism Syndrome and Other Horizons in Poetry.

There are moments when you realise, as you sit battling with the new Blogger layout and system, that blogging is an act of total and utter solipsism. Nothing I say within the limits of this blog feels real to me as an experience for anyone else, not that I don't think you are real dear reader or that your experiences are not valid. However if there is no interactive experience other than the self, the very early stages of solipsism syndrome may kick in now and then which may be displayed in mumblings to the self and a slight sense that it may be a hop, skip and a jump from here to starting to stack newspapers in the hallway and appearing on Life of Grime. Solipsism is a philosophical position that nothing outside one's own mind can be known to exist, or, sometimes, the position that nothing outside one's own mind does exist. Solipsism syndrome is, by extension, the overwhelming feeling that nothing is real, that all is a dream. Sufferers become lonely and detached from the world and eventually become completely indifferent.Luckily I went through all that 'Am I the figment of someone else's imagination' angst when I was thirteen and decided back then that if I was whoever was imagining me had a really poor imagination if all he could come up with was what I was living.Watching the Matrix also confirmed to me that if Hollywood could put Keanu Reeves in a film that purported to show our whole lives as being the construct of some giant computer then the reality option was to be preferred. However I became interested in solipsism syndrome whilst researching something for a SF short story. Psychological considerations are important in the design of enclosed spaces such as artificial habitats in deep space or under water, with aolipaiam syndrome being specifically identified as a factor by scientists and engineers.Several strategies to attempt to avoid occurrence of solipsism syndrome in artificial environments are discussed in NASA's "Space Settlements: A Design Study" which proposes designs for space colonization: 1. A large geometry, in which people can see far beyond the "theatre stage" of the vicinity to a view which is overwhelmingly visible. 2. Something must exist beyond each human's manipulation because people learn to cope with reality when reality is different from their imagination. If the reality is the same as the imagination, there is no escape from falling into solipsism. In extraterrestrial communities, everything can be virtually controlled. In fact, technically nothing should go beyond human control even though this is psychologically bad; however, some amount of "unpredictability" can be built in within a controllable range. One way to achieve this is to generate artificial unpredictability by means of a table of random numbers. Another way is to allow animals and plants a degree of freedom and independence from human planning. Both types of unpredictability must have a high visibility to be effective. This high visibility is easier to achieve in a macrogeometry which allows longer lines of sight. 3.Something must exist which grows. Interactive processes generate new patterns which cannot be inferred from the information contained in the old state. This is not due to randomness but rather to different amplification by mutual causal loops. It is important for each person to feel able to contribute personally to something which grows, that the reality often goes in a direction different from expectation, and finally that what each person takes care of (a child, for example) may possess increased wisdom, and may grow into something beyond the individual in control. From this point of view, it is important personally to raise children, and to grow vegetables and trees with personal care, not by mechanical means. It is also desirable to see plants and animals grow, which is facilitated by a long line of sight. 4.It is important to have "something beyond the horizon" which gives the feeling that the world is larger than what is seen. All the above begs to become a found poem which I shall work on and of course I see metaphors for so much else in these points made in the study. There are so many people now that have no access to something beyond the horizon let alone a future space colony on Vega. Why am I talking about all this ? Because I have just had a poem published in Focus the magazine for writers published by The British Science Fiction Associations and it set me thinking in my embryonic solisistic way about horizons and boundaries. Science Fiction and Fantasy is a genre that I admire and love, when well written. It is a genre that offers up the opportunity to explore beyond what is now or possible and interrogates the imagination in complex ways. Fantasy and Sci Fi have to sometimes create not just a narrative but a whole world for that narrative to unfold in. There are no short cuts in a story, the 97 Bus to Peckham is something most people have a concept of but place it in an urban fantasy or Sci-Fi story and it becomes other; it has to be defined, it has to be described, its purpose and history created because in an urban fantasy this bus may not be just a bus. It may be a sentient being who manifests itself as a bus, it may be a thought bus created by the necessity to get to Peckham and that thought can move you through space and time, it could be a holographic bus created for nostalgic reasons in the 23rd century. Everything is up for grabs in fantasy and Sci Fi, even in hard scientific sci fi stories, as long as the writer remains internally consistant. Charles Christian in his article in Focus in which he addresses 'Why Poetry in a SF Magazine?'talks about the sort of prejudice that exists against poetry in Sci Fi and Fantasy genre but he suggests that if you call it magic realism then it becomes something far more acceptable. The rose by another name will indeed smell sweeter to some poetry readers. Whilst there are no boundaries about what a good poem can do, some readers can still occupy the border crossings demanding to see the poems paperwork, its passport and visa before it can be truely welcomed to Poetryania. Some poets, because they are beloved existing citizens of Poetryania can cross the border now and then into Sci Fi and Fantasy and still be welcomed back to their homeland, their brief excursion viewed with some minor interest or ignored as a brief but ill advised excursion. The best Sci- Fi and Fantasy( both Urban and otherwise)can tell us something about ourselves and our world now. At the moment I am reading China Mieville's Iron Council the last in his Bas Lag trilogy. In these books he creates a world and writes a story set during three different period in this world's history. The whole work is rich with metaphor about our world and the history of capitalism and empire , the nature of freedom and what makes us free beings despite our differences. Here is a world where characters can be giant cacti or sentenced criminals remade as hideous part human, part insect, part machine or a monstrous compilation of attributes, there is, by definition, an exploration of what is the defining qualities which make a sentient creature capable of moral judgement. What makes an individual capable of good, ill or both at the same time because in the end characters and their choices are what drive a story.The use of magic and strange steam technology may enrich that world but it is the why of things rather than the how that holds the real magic of looking at the commonplace with different eyes. Equally a poem that explores strange context, the nature of reality, what might be or not be,creates a whole new world, is only a stone's throw from the old so called Martian School of poetry which uses the strangeness of the everyday to underpin the poem. The late Edwin Morgan was of course one of the great poets who embraced the Sci Fi genre and he saw no reason why poets should not be as comfortable in the journey to the planets as in any walk in the countryside.He didn't believe in boundaries and to go back to the design specs for future human existence in space then there needs to be a sense of something beyond the horizon to make sense of it all. I would also like to point out that I have created paragraphs in this blog but the new system seems to deny all knowledge of this means of creating boundaries between thoughts.....walks away from the computer mumbling to self and tripping over a pile of newspapers.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Falling Tall Women, Pope and Body

This is a blog partly in response to a posting on the blog Poetry on the Brain by Helen Mort. This post looks at the relationship between the body, the mind and the poet. This response wanders off, of course, as I like to wander, annoying to those around me but strangely exhilarating to me as I find all sorts of things down the road less travelled; teapots, unread letters, marbles, a few of which are often my own.

I should perhaps start by saying that as part of my work in the past I have worked with those who have or have had acute Body Dysmorphia and on two occasions Gender Identity Disorder. I also know someone who, as a hospital social worker in the United States had to deal with two people experiencing so called Body Identity Integrity Disorder ( when a person feels a part of their body does not belong to them and is so alien that they want it amputated ).

These are of course very extreme positions on a ‘psychiatric continuum’ which we all to some extent inhabit, for instance how many women or men regard a part of their body as unsatisfactory when others can see no problem at all. How we perceive out body and also how we perceive our movement of it and the space it inhabits is extremely interesting and must be part of the human condition.

Many children with Dyspraxia I have worked with have huge difficulty knowing where their body is in space. If you ask them to lie on the floor and close their eyes many will clutch at the floor and they will open their eyes because without any visual feedback they feel as if they are falling in space. Ask them to describe that feeling and even very young children have told me not only are they falling (with all the inevitable anxiety this can bring with it) but they feel they are losing something else they can’t quite name. One boy once told me it felt like he had to open his eyes because if he didn’t he would disappear, which I can only presume is a loss of the sense of self.

The use of various techniques such as sensory circuits help such children build a greater sense of where they are in space and in relation to others and the effects on behaviour and mood are reported as enormously beneficial in many cases. This of course begs the question of how self-esteem and self-perception are integrated within the psyche which is a whole different ball game but nevertheless increasing an individual’s body awareness in space does seem to have a marked effect on self perception.

Those whose career and identity are intrinsically woven into their physicality; how they move in space , how they control their body to achieve various objectives or to experience a sort of endorphin rush find the loss of bodily function informs who they are, their own sense of self. Kinaesthetic memory has a huge impact on memory in general and if identity is seen as a constant chain of memory, each link has to be of some importance in creating and perceiving self. I am 6’ 4” tall and that has had a huge impact on how I perceive myself and how I am perceived by others which has to have a knock on effect on self perception.

Strangely at the moment I am attempting to write about being extremely tall. I actually see the world differently given my eye-line which means I see somethings others do not and vice-versa. I can see across a crowded room whereas my shorter friends can not; my body allows me to experience a crowded room as something other than a swathe of backs . Put me in a room full of people taller than myself, which has happened once or twice and I become quite disorientated and strangely disembodied. This is nowhere near the impact that a disability could have on who I am and how it effects my creative work. Someone in a wheelchair entering a room who has to look up to people to talk to them has to work harder at maintaining their self esteem as there is research that shows that having to talk to someone taller than yourself has an impact in how you perceive the nature of the dialogue and who has the power in the relationship. This may tie in with your example of the difference people showed in judging distance after being read different types of stories. A very assertive tall person can be seen as either a leader or a bully (dependent on context), whilst an assertive short person can be perceived as either exhibiting some kind of ‘Napoleon’ complex or being aggressive.

The late Ian Drury in later life said that his disability had a huge impact on his creative work if only in so far as he sort to fight against and nullify what others perceived as its impact. It would be interesting to know how many poets now and historically have disabilities, blindness, deafness, paralysis, deformity, and how is this bodily difference reflected in their work and is there a difference in those with a difference from birth and those who have acquired a difference.

I sometimes can’t help but think about those old tales of Native American Indians believing that if they allowed their image to be taken (photographed) they believed their soul would be taken from them. Perhaps they knew better than we do that when faced with the objective image of our own bodies, in order to process that information something more than the visual is involved, we have to integrate that with our self perception and this may cause a real schism in our sense of personal identity which you may see as the soul if you are religious. Who we are and who we perceive ourselves to be has always been a hot poetry topic and the shell we inhabit isn’t really a shell at all it is an integral part of who we are and how we inhabit physical space.

Alexander Pope, the eighteenth century poet and essayist (among many other things) struggled with ill health all his life. He had a kind of tuberculosis of the bone which led him to be only 4’6” tall and quite badly deformed. He was in constant pain yet his sharp satirical wit demonstrated his refusal to be pandered to because of his physical looks. But of course how far was his physical difference the source of something that drove him to be the poet he was. His Catholic faith precluded him, as brilliant as he was, from ever attending University or holding any public academic post and yet this hunch-backed little man was able to be one of the most prominent thinkers of his day. The drive to be listened to, to write, to be counted as one of the great minds of his day cannot be totally divorced from the fact of his body and the way that impacted on who he was.


There are those who to my person pay their court:
I cough like Horace, and, though lean, am short
Ammon's great son one shoulder had too high -
Such Ovid's nose - and 'Sir, you have an eye'.
Go on, obliging creatures, make me see
All that disgraced my betters met in me.
Say, for my comfort, languishing in bed,
'Just so immortal Maro held his head;'
And, when I die, be sure and let me know
Great Homer died three thousand years ago.
Why did I write? What sin to me unknown
Dipp'd me in ink? my parents', or my own?
As yet a child, nor yet a fool to fame,
I lisp'd in numbers, for the numbers came.
I left no calling for this idle trade,
No duty broke, no father disobeyed:
The Muse but served to ease some friend, not wife,
To help me through this long disease, my life.

Alexander Pope

Monday, 9 April 2012

Being Nowhere and Somewhere

So Assad continues to murder his own people, the man under Donald Trump’s toupee asserts that Obama is hiding the fact that he was not born in America and a man swims out into the Thames to disrupt the Oxford versus Cambridge boat race. This seems the default position of the planet, mad and mad and mad. But all of these acts have an agenda , hidden or otherwise, showing that madness is a term only used by those who do not grasp the benefits such acts can accrue. Assad gains ground before a potentially damaging ceasefire, Trump gets publicity for his TV show and plays to the Republican paranoia, and the swimmer gets a lot of air time for himself and a cause.

I often think the world is going to hell in a hand-cart and that we, as a species, are doomed to expunge ourselves in some gradual or spectacular way and leave the planet to keep turning and mend itself in any way it can. Yet such a feeling is of course defeatist and ignores all the good things our species can do and there are some good things you just have to look hard enough. Individuals can be kind, thoughtful, willing to help, some even sacrifice their own well being for the well-being of others. We may produce Mozart, Da Vinci, Shakespeare, the small pox vaccine etc but the small things may be the most important. I saw a man yesterday run after someone who had dropped a ten pound note, a young girl pushing what looked like an elderly relative in her wheelchair and laughing with her about something, the man in the corner shop letting a young man use his mobile because his had run out of money and he needed to phone someone to say he would be late.

Ok tiny things, small unimportant events, in great danger of becoming that twee ‘pay it forward’ scenario but on the whole I keep the faith that most people would rather do good than harm on a personal level and that all that needs to happen is that this feeling get translated to the bigger picture. Why am I pontificating about all this, because I have joined the Nowhereisland Community and I am thinking about how a new nation should be formed, what values it should hold as worthwhile. This is especially important when children get to think about those things in a way that grabs their attention and this project seems to be doing just that.

At present the American writer and poet Ben Morris is this week’s resident thinker and proposes that the constitution of Nowhwereisland should include a demand that islanders should have multiple careers, a state he describes as being Occupational Polyglots.

I qualify as being an occupational polyglot, even more so, if we factor in being a mother and a carer of elderly relatives. If the view from where you stand involves several points in the landscape it does make for a more rounded perception of where we are. I think one point I would make however is that perhaps occupation does not have to involve monetary exchange. I know many poets who would say they are poets but make no money from it and in fact the flow of money may well go the other way. I make my living by doing something can sometimes be equated with I live by making something such as poems, books, images, a community organisation of some kind.

Is someone in receipt of disability benefits for instance precluded from seeing themselves as having an occupation as a poet, writer, artist, web designer, carer? Their occupation is not being disabled but that defines how they are paid and often relegates anything else they do to a ‘hobby’ as the potential for some occupation being paid for will effect their benefit.

How we occupy ourselves surely is an occupation but I understand in pure economic terms it cannot be classed as such but with a new nation perhaps volunteering, producing beautiful art which makes you no income, should still be an occupation. When that space on the form says occupation, I am always tempted to write simply ‘YES' as I am more than occupied. I have a paid occupation but much else of what I do is just as important and feels like a career and not a hobby. Are only those whose income is solely from writing, art, etc, able to say this is their occupation? Most poets I know actually make their living from teaching creative writing, editing etc and not from the poetry itself but they would still say they are poets on a visa request form. I never actually write poet or writer as my occupation, am I doing myself down by just writing what constitutes the source of my income. I could of course put textual and conceptual imagineer and see what happens.