Self As City, City As Self
A transcript of my talk from Entheon Village at Burning Man 2010.
Hey everybody, welcome to the heart space at Entheon Village. My name is Michael Garfield and I’m the first of a handful of speakers for this panel of Self as City, and City as Self. First, I want to set the stage a little bit for this conversation because this was a topic that I broached with our symposium coordinator.
The theme of Burning Man this year is the Metropolis. It’s a good theme. It’s about time that we explicated this, that we made it transparent that we are all participating in a constructed community here, and that we explore this idea…and my favorite way of exploring it is to muse on the nature of the collective, on the nature of our organizational forces and their products. And my preferred mode is discussing all of the different contexts in which we exist, and which exist in us. And then to bring those all together to illuminate this nexus of inter-relating forces that we have to take into consideration as we renegotiate this self-other boundary over the next few years of rapid, techno-cultural and social-ecological change.
So, I’m going to speak for a couple minutes on two halves. First we’re going to go “Self as City,” and examine all the ways that each of us is an entire multitude; and then we’re going to go “City as Self,” and we’re going to examine all the ways that our communities and our ecological surrounds are internalized as well as all of the ways that we can regard our collectives as distinct individual entities. So I’m just going to do what William Irwin Thompson called a little bit of “mind jazz” here, and riff on different fields and what they have to say about this.
The place I’d like to start this tour is with biologist Lynn Margulis. She put forward in the 1970’s a theory called “endosymbiosis,” which is that the earliest bacteria living in competition with one another came into a mutual relationship, where rather than feeding upon one another they stopped somewhere in the middle of that process some of them became conjoined. Some of the little free-swimming spirochete bacteria, these little spiral-shaped bacteria that were swimming about in the nutrient soup, fixed themselves onto the membrane of other bacteria and ended up propelling them through the primordial oceans.
So all of a sudden, rather than just floating about aimlessly, these larger bacteria had a motility, with a bunch of these tiny spiral bacteria on them; it’s like when people are clapping their hands at a sports game and suddenly everyone is clapping in unison. There was this emergent property of all these tiny spiral-shaped bacteria on the surface of this larger bacterium that were suddenly moving like a single propellant force, and all of a sudden you have a new entity, you have this emergent whole.
And Lynn Margulis’ theory was that all of us today with our nucleated cells — and each of our cells has a number of these different organelles in them, these smaller structures that perform various functions, like the mitochondria (which are the powerhouses, the metabolic centers for cellular processes) — that these were once free-living organisms, and that at some point this new holism emerged, and evolution started to operate on a new unit of selection. It started to operate on a new individual that was greater than any prior individual.
And the basic thrust of her whole theory was that even what we consider to be the basic units of our organization — you know, each individual cell — is actually an entire colony; it’s a collective of cooperating organisms, and that the evolutionary process, although in certain ways driven by competition, is equally driven by cooperation and in fact what we regard as cooperation and what we regard as competition have as much to do with the way we are perceiving them as the way they have to do with any kind of external reality. There’s this balance between the forces that drives organisms competing to survive in an increasingly complex environment into increasingly sophisticated forms of social cooperation. So it’s not really that you can say that nature is just red and tooth and claw — there’s actually this other side, which is that everywhere we look that we see competition, we can look at it in a different way, and find that it’s actually a collaboration of forces to create these newer, sustainable diverse holisms.
So, each of us are a multitude in that sense, physically. But psychologically, we can also be considered as a multitude. Hypnotherapist Milton Erickson’s research suggested that hypnotizing people and coaxing out different voices from them, that there are in the average person about thirteen to twenty-three distinct and regular sub-personalities. A lot of them are that person at a different age in their life, and there are all these little voices that each of us fall back into, that we pretend are us. They clamor to identify as whomever we call ourselves. But it’s really not one unit; it’s this conglomerate of sub-personalities. And this has been used really effectively in the last few decades of voice dialogue therapy, where people are actually asked in kind of a method acting to speak from the voice of the Skeptic or the Protector or the Vulnerable Child or the victim or the Buddha Mind, and the most interesting thing to me is this has actually been used as a contemplative practice by Genpo Dennis Merzel Roshi. His Big Mind process leads people through all of these voices within themselves, these voices that are in service to self, and moving fluidly from perspective to perspective he starts to sneak in asking people to embody the voice — for example — of Big Mind and Big Heart, and turns people on to the fact that enlightened mind is this everpresent perspective that he’s able to locate and have people identify as. And even with twelve-year-olds he has a 99% success rate for being able to get people into this.
So not just biologically, but psychologically, each of us are this collective parading around as an individual. But we can also look at it throughout time and take the more contemplative perspective that what we regard as the continuous ego is actually a series of interactions, whether you look at it as a series of moments that we stitch together because of their similarity, or whether you regard it as a series of ongoing processes that are woven together in some sort of harmonic way. It’s true in time as well as in space as well as the more interior mental qualitative dimensions that each of us contain within this one identity, that we have adopted for the purposes of day-to-day convenience, an enormous number of participants. (So, if you don’t drink enough water, than some of the more immature participants are likely to rear their head, as I have noticed.)
Then on the other hand we have the city as the self. In one sense this is very mundane. We can say, “Oh well yes, everything we do, every artifact that we create, is a performance of our culture,” that all of our architecture is an expression of the consciousness, that it’s a communication. It’s an attempt to express something, and ultimately therefore, in the words of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, it’s an extension of our phenotype, our physical form. Our cities are, in some sense — as well as all of our technology — an extension of our behavior and our anatomy. It can be regarded as a part of our body. And in fact there has been a lot of research into human tool use and its effect on the brain that indicates that if you are holding a hammer, your brain automatically adjusts the map of your body to include the hammer. And so in a very real and psychological way, the tools that we use and the spaces that we inhabit are a felt extension of our physical form and also our mind and our thoughts — insofar as speaking or writing is thinking out loud, dancing is thinking out loud.
But again in that sense, if this is an extension of my physical form, it’s also an extension of your physical form, and then we are, in that sense, conjoined. We are joined at the metropolis; we are woven together at that level, in that dimension, through our collaborative projects. And then also of course, the spaces that we inhabit are opportunities for the culture to engineer our state of consciousness — so even as our cities are a performance of our culture, they operate upon us, they program the culture into us. A really fabulous example of this is that they’ve done some research into ceiling height; you think about cathedrals and temple spaces, and most of them have very tall ceilings. And what they’ve found is that ceiling height has a direct effect on the spaciousness perceived. So if you really want people to focus on the transcendental, then you create a cathedral ceiling. Also, work from physicists like Dan Winter has popularized that temples obey certain geometries that create resonant magnetic fields that are actually supportive to the growth and development of living systems. They focus basically as capacitors of electromagnetic and subtler energies. The shape and constitution of our buildings actually affects the human organism; it’s actually affecting the ways that our genes are turning on and off, the hormones that we express, the state of mind that is magnetically entrained by the resonances of our surroundings.
There’s another sense in which cities can be regarded specifically as individuals. I like to use as one of my simplest orienting generalizations: that there is a hard correlation, a reliable correlation of body and mind that these are two different dimensions, two different perspectives on the same thing. That we don’t really need to worry about the relationship or whether one is causing the other. At least historically, we can’t seem to determine that; and it seems that the most likely reason is that it’s one thing so you can’t say that one thing is actually causing itself; that’s a logical boner. But in that sense then the complexity of one equals the complexity of the other, so we each have a human form that has a neural net that’s far more sophisticated than the neural net of some flatworm, and therefore we can predict certain things from that. We can predict that we are going to have certain types of experiences that the worm is not.
But something that has been largely ignored by people who adhere to this assumption of correlation of mind and body is that we only recently launched up a solar observer that is capable of looking at the magnetic patterns of the Sun at a resolution of 360 kilometers. I mean, that’s huge, but it’s still on the surface of the Sun it’s very small, and we’re realizing now that the magnetic patterns of our star are far, far, far more intricate than we thought they were…and likewise, our own planet. And it seems to me that it would be foolish to believe that these patterns, which are millions, billions, trillions of times more sophisticated than the electrochemical energetic description of a single human body, would not also correspondingly have the correlative experience that’s millions, billions, trillions of times more intricate, and that there is a way in which we can actually start thinking of these larger units of a city, or a nation, or a planet, or a solar system, or a galaxy, as ever larger and more inclusive bodies with ever larger and ever more inclusive minds.
So I’m not the kind of person who wants to end my worship at Gaia, and draw the line there and say, “My god: the planet.” Because it seems to me that even the planet and its transcendental awareness it possesses is transcended itself, and that as far as we look in either direction this goes on for as far as we can see. To me it seems that science is bringing us back to this alchemical understanding of “as above so below,” this endless fractal self-similar organization, minds and bodies enfolded inside minds and bodies as far as we can perceive in either way.
And so we can start talking about the character, the dynamic, the nature, the personality of a specific city — because after all, historically, cities emerged as not only ways for people to socially organize and to capitalize on a surplus of agricultural yield (and then specialize in a number of professions like organelles within a single cellular body), but that there was a religious purpose to the early cities, that early cities all came into being (or many came into being) in order to honor a specific deity. Like Athens, Greece, these cities were erected in honor of a specific being, and I’m of the mind that if you were to zoom out and do the Google Maps neuron-brain-scan-view of everyone in a particular population, and you were to say, “Let me look at the cross-section of that population that’s all thinking about money right now, or that’s all thinking about sex” (You know, there is that scene in Dazed & Confused where they are all on the moon tower and they’re like “Man, look out at that, how many people are doing it out there?”), well pretty soon we are going to be able to actually do that. We are going to be able to pull out to satellite-level views and observe these thought forms as they appear in some sort of material pattern in millions or billions of people…and what is that pattern if not the discrete embodiment of an idea? What is that, if not the body of spirit or a God? The way that people go to church and they honor their creator, the way people go to stock market and they devote their energies and attentions to the playing of a specific set of forces; that these are religious impulses and they unify us as individual human beings into the very real living body of a larger and likely a sentient pattern.
Then there is also the notion — while we are getting into super organisms — that each of us are in fact the reflection of the city, that the ego is an intelligent response to the environment. In fact at the Lindesfarne Foundation, William Irwin Thompson and his people — Stuart Kauffman of the Santa Fe Institute and others — has talked about how the ego functions as a delay-space. The ego itself is a place for the various sensory impulses; they all travel at different speeds, so in order for them to be integrated, you need a nexus, and that nexus is the self. Our selfhood, from a cybernetic definition, is where all of the relevant environmental forces, all of those dimensions of our ecological surround that are important to our survival, come into communion with one another.
And, as the ego develops, it becomes able to take as object its earlier forms and identify as larger and larger wholes that were once the ecological surround of the earlier version of that ego. So the example here would be that in mythological rule-and-role-based conventional communities — a great example would be a Christian fundamentalist church, where everyone has imported this specific system of values and ethics and is identifying with their place in that system, and whether or not they are well executing their God-given responsibilities — when you move from that kind of thinking to the more modern kind of thinking of self-authorship, where “I’m the one generating a system of values, and I therefore choose specific roles and I move fluidly role to role for different situations,” I may look like the good son when I go visit my parents and go to church with them, but then I come out to Burning Man and I put on my bondage gear and there is no conflict in that
because all of them are unified within a coherent system of meaning that I have authored. What has happened there is I have become the generator-of-roles that was once the divided collective intelligence of my entire community. So naturally, there is conflict between mythical consciousness and modern consciousness, because it looks to the mythical mind that a self-authoring, value-selecting individual is disobeying the will of God, is blasphemous. They’re incapable of understanding how that can occur.
At any rate, as we grow and we develop we internalize the city to a greater and greater degree and what was once a distributed intelligence becomes more and more located in the individual; whereas simultaneously the more intricate our cities become, the more we end up specializing, the more we end up becoming super-specialists with limited skill sets and very limited (although deep) knowledge bases.
So that’s me just trying to pull as many pins on this mind grenade as I can before we get up the next set of speakers, and then we’re going to have the panel up here. But suffice it to say, if we can distill that, there are innumerable ways in which each of us are the collective, as well as the individual. And there are numerous ways in which the collectives into which we have organized operate and function and should probably well be considered as individual entities, as discrete beings. And as we become woven ever more intimately with our electronic technologies and our emergent or rediscovered psychic capacities (however you believe that those two things are going to articulate in the next several decades), we’re very literally weaving ourselves into a collective human consciousness, and our notion of self is geared for a radical renovation. These are all things to bear in mind as we address this crisis of alienation that most people are feeling now, this sense that we are not part of “It,” that we are not participating, that somehow there is a distinction, there’s a division between over here and over there in some sort of fundamental and absolute way. Well, that’s just not true. And nobody, none of these sciences, none of these human disciplines, believe that anymore.
So it’s time for us to re-evaluate our sense of self and its relationship and its place and its participation in these greater wholes.
Paleontologist turned poet-philosopher, Michael Garfield’s multimedia maps of the evolutionary landscape and our place in it help us write new myths for our accelerating age. Learn more about Michael’s writing, art, and music, as well as Future Fossils Podcast: