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Author Topic: Time; Rings of thought, Lines of thought  (Read 2063 times)
Crafty_Dog
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« on: April 24, 2007, 11:40:04 AM »

Texts That Run Rings Around Everyday Linear Logic

By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
NY Times
Published: March 26, 2007

The feeling is familiar. You are listening to a piece of music, and nothing links one moment with the next. Sounds seem to emerge without purpose from some unmapped realm, neither connecting to what came before nor anticipating anything after. The same thing can happen while reading. Passages accumulate like tedious entries in an exercise book. Chaos, disorder, clumsiness, disarray: these must be the marks of poor construction or, perhaps, of deliberate provocation.

In a strange way, though, the very same sensations might also be marks of our own perceptual failures. Perhaps the order behind the sounds is simply not being heard; perhaps the logic of the argument is not being understood. Paying attention to anything alien can be like listening to a foreign language. There may be logic latent in the sounds, but it is not evident to untrained ears.

This is one reason we so persist in trying to find order, even when it is not first apparent. It is almost a faith in science, psychology, religion and art: an unshakable conviction that some pattern will be found. And often it is. Now, a brief book by the British anthropologist Mary Douglas, “Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition” (Yale University Press), provides another glimpse, cursory but suggestive, of this quest for pattern.

Over the course of her career Ms. Douglas has become a master at discerning order in unexpected forms and surprising places. In an unassuming way, without pretense or revolutionary claims, she reveals the logic behind the varied customs of a society. One of the arguments made in her classic book “Purity and Danger” was that herein lies the very work of a culture: to shape a rigorous order that can hold threatening outside forces at bay. Societies divide the world into the clean and the unclean, the permitted and the forbidden, the pure and the polluted, imposing their categories on the continuities of nature, creating order while disclosing it.

This order is also preserved and passed on through literary and religious texts, which must themselves communicate a culture’s way of understanding the world. Why, though, Ms. Douglas asks, are so many of these texts so disorganized, so clumsily written — at least according to generations of readers? The biblical Book of Numbers, she points out, has been dismissed as an unstructured miscellany; one important scholar, Julius Wellhausen, looked at it, she writes, as if it were a “kind of attic used for storing biblical materials that did not fit,” almost a “junk room for the rest of the Pentateuch.”

Over the centuries many Chinese novels have also been attacked for lack of structure, repetition and episodic incoherence. So have Persian and Zoroastrian poetry. Even the Iliad has come in for its share of criticism. Ms. Douglas adds, “The terms disarray and chaotic, together with disordered, clumsy, and other pejoratives” crop up very often in descriptions of the texts that interest her. She herself reacts like an anthropologist surveying a society’s strange customs. “Whenever I read criticism of dire editorial confusion,” she writes, “my pulse quickens; I scent a hidden structure.”

In many cases she finds one. “Writings that used to baffle and dismay unprepared readers, when read correctly, turn out to be marvelously controlled and complex compositions,” she writes. Many epic works of non-Western cultures, she explains, have a distinctive shape: they are constructed in the form of rings.

Here is how the ring works. First there is an introductory section, a prologue that presents the theme and context. The story then proceeds toward its crucial center: the turning point and climax. Once there, the beginning is invoked again and the tale reverses direction. The second half of the story rigorously echoes the first, using verbal markers — like repetition or changes in style — but proceeding as a mirror image, as if the writer is walking backward through the plot. The ending is a return to the beginning. The ring structure also resembles an unrolling thread that is then pulled back onto its spool.

This pattern, Ms. Douglas and other writers have suggested, appears again and again in world literature. She argues, for example, that the biblical story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac is laid out in ring form. It begins with God’s call to Abraham; the turning point comes when the angel calls to Abraham before he strikes Isaac, their interchange echoing the words at the beginning. Then, step by step, the story reverses itself, repeating at each step language used earlier.

In her brilliant analysis of the biblical book Numbers (fully explored in another of her volumes, “In the Wilderness”), Ms. Douglas has found that the entire text is constructed in a circling and mirroring form, in which bands of narrative alternate with layers of legal writ. A work that might seem a structural hodgepodge takes on, in her analysis, a rigorous logic; the parallels established by the ring form assume important meanings that are crucial for understanding the biblical book’s preoccupation with the priesthood and authority.

Ms. Douglas explores the ring structure in more recent literature as well (including Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy”), but for the most part, she writes, the pattern has become lost to Western perception. Narratives rigorously written in ring form have come to seem chaotic and clumsy. This is not, she insists, because they are esoteric codes but because today we look elsewhere for order, distrusting the ring form’s rigorous demands. The ring can seem to overturn linear logic and expectation; we prefer open-ended explorations and mistake order for chaos.

I’m not sure that that is the full explanation. And this book is too limited a survey to do the theme justice; it suggests more than it proves. But there is a compelling reason for why the ring pattern that Ms. Douglas outlines works so well: It maps out the ways in which human beings make sense of things.

At first one event follows another. We may not be entirely sure where it is going. Is there a point at all? Then, with declarative emphasis comes the turning, where, with a shock, we hear a first echo. We connect these different moments; a pattern begins to take shape. Then, step by step, other similarities are heard — they too take on meaning — moving backward from the most recent to the earliest in time, until we return to where we began. This kind of narrative needs to be heard again, for it is only in the retelling that the full nature of its order is revealed.

The ring form thus seems to presume repetition and re-interpretation to be understood; it almost takes on the aspect of ritual. It also seems to presume a community that will share in accumulated understanding. Is this perhaps what makes the ring form so alien to contemporary life? Right now, disorder seems much more realistic.

Connections, a critic’s perspective on arts and ideas, appears every other Monday.

===========
A friend responds:

I recall a dim memory of a book I read some years ago called the Gift of the Jews which argued that until the emergence of a more linear, future oriented thinking pattern, thoughts and societies and world views were circular, “rings,” based on the repetitive pattern of the days and seasons.  

 

After all, the entirety of life in those days was focused on the daily and seasonal cycles that always closed on themselves, so why would one have any other world view?  Your ancestors and your successors could expect precisely the same life.  It was always so, and would always be so.

 

Then the human capacity for thinking forward, beyond the circular view of everyday life, began to take hold and people thought forward longer term, developed plans, built buildings, then cities, and the current linear thinking model evolved and became dominant as we separated from the natural cycle of the earth.  Storage of surpluses and complexities of trade necessitated a change of viewpoint.

 

This thesis seems consistent with your points, Ed. Today everyday logic is linear.  Four thousand years ago everyday logic was circular, like the passage of time.  Round and round.

 

Maybe that is why the older texts are constructed as indicated in your column.

 

Fred
« Last Edit: April 18, 2013, 07:40:45 AM by Crafty_Dog » Logged
Crafty_Dog
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« Reply #1 on: November 23, 2007, 12:05:42 AM »

TTT
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Freki
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« Reply #2 on: October 23, 2008, 11:27:44 PM »

I just read through this once, but my thoughts turned to the struggle between traditional values and modern culture then to our cultural war with Fundamentalist Islam.  This thinking in rings is very important I feel.
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Crafty_Dog
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« Reply #3 on: January 27, 2009, 10:59:43 AM »

What Life Asks of Us

By DAVID BROOKS
Published: January 26, 2009
A few years ago, a faculty committee at Harvard produced a report on the purpose of education. “The aim of a liberal education” the report declared, “is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to reorient themselves.”

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The report implied an entire way of living. Individuals should learn to think for themselves. They should be skeptical of pre-existing arrangements. They should break free from the way they were raised, examine life from the outside and discover their own values.

This approach is deeply consistent with the individualism of modern culture, with its emphasis on personal inquiry, personal self-discovery and personal happiness. But there is another, older way of living, and it was discussed in a neglected book that came out last summer called “On Thinking Institutionally” by the political scientist Hugh Heclo.

In this way of living, to borrow an old phrase, we are not defined by what we ask of life. We are defined by what life asks of us. As we go through life, we travel through institutions — first family and school, then the institutions of a profession or a craft.

Each of these institutions comes with certain rules and obligations that tell us how to do what we’re supposed to do. Journalism imposes habits that help reporters keep a mental distance from those they cover. Scientists have obligations to the community of researchers. In the process of absorbing the rules of the institutions we inhabit, we become who we are.

New generations don’t invent institutional practices. These practices are passed down and evolve. So the institutionalist has a deep reverence for those who came before and built up the rules that he has temporarily taken delivery of. “In taking delivery,” Heclo writes, “institutionalists see themselves as debtors who owe something, not creditors to whom something is owed.”

The rules of a profession or an institution are not like traffic regulations. They are deeply woven into the identity of the people who practice them. A teacher’s relationship to the craft of teaching, an athlete’s relationship to her sport, a farmer’s relation to her land is not an individual choice that can be easily reversed when psychic losses exceed psychic profits. Her social function defines who she is. The connection is more like a covenant. There will be many long periods when you put more into your institutions than you get out.

In 2005, Ryne Sandberg was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame. Heclo cites his speech as an example of how people talk when they are defined by their devotion to an institution:

“I was in awe every time I walked onto the field. That’s respect. I was taught you never, ever disrespect your opponents or your teammates or your organization or your manager and never, ever your uniform. You make a great play, act like you’ve done it before; get a big hit, look for the third base coach and get ready to run the bases.”

Sandberg motioned to those inducted before him, “These guys sitting up here did not pave the way for the rest of us so that players could swing for the fences every time up and forget how to move a runner over to third. It’s disrespectful to them, to you and to the game of baseball that we all played growing up.

“Respect. A lot of people say this honor validates my career, but I didn’t work hard for validation. I didn’t play the game right because I saw a reward at the end of the tunnel. I played it right because that’s what you’re supposed to do, play it right and with respect ... . If this validates anything, it’s that guys who taught me the game ... did what they were supposed to do, and I did what I was supposed to do.”

I thought it worth devoting a column to institutional thinking because I try to keep a list of the people in public life I admire most. Invariably, the people who make that list have subjugated themselves to their profession, social function or institution.

Second, institutional thinking is eroding. Faith in all institutions, including charities, has declined precipitously over the past generation, not only in the U.S. but around the world. Lack of institutional awareness has bred cynicism and undermined habits of behavior. Bankers, for example, used to have a code that made them a bit stodgy and which held them up for ridicule in movies like “Mary Poppins.” But the banker’s code has eroded, and the result was not liberation but self-destruction.

Institutions do all the things that are supposed to be bad. They impede personal exploration. They enforce conformity.

But they often save us from our weaknesses and give meaning to life.

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Crafty_Dog
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« Reply #4 on: April 18, 2013, 07:40:22 AM »



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3oIiH7BLmg
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