Fly on the Wall—Eternal Dump Runs of the Cartesian Mind

Fly on the Wall—Eternal Dump Runs of the Cartesian Mind

Living out near the town dump is better than it sounds.  There’re stunning views east to the rugged volcanic batholith of Giant’s Head mountain and, beyond that, an open vista with Okanagan Lake (and the mythical Ogopogo) out of sight far below.  Along the horizon the line of mountains further away frames the picture like the edge of a flat earth.  It’s quite paradisaical on a sunny spring Saturday, and on some such days I take a stroll out past marmot dens and along the street leading to our local sanitary landfill.  Lines of trucks, as many as a dozen long, await their turn to drop off yard waste; each driver fulfilling either an internal or external portion of their weekend honey-do list.  It’s a beautiful time of year and, having been in that lineup myself, I can tell you that the mind wanders as the rapturous sunlight expresses an almost Mediterranean lucidity.

The air and the breeze flows free and clean; you’d never guess there was a mountain of garbage there.  You see, our town dump is and is not a dump.  That’s because where garbage was once plowed under the soil it now is collected in huge blue dumpsters and carted far away.  Likewise, drivers waiting to deposit their loads are both sitting at the wheel and not; many look distracted, as though dreaming, and, with windows rolled up and air conditioning cranked, they enjoy a moment of respite that fairly begs to be wiled away in reverie.

It all might seem a bit mad, a bit nuts on a sunny day, to have ones’ windows up and to have shut out the gorgeous immediate surroundings.  Yet that is precisely how we distance students can appear to others.  First, we are choosing to engage in schooling, yet more schooling, while many of our peers were happy long ago to scamper out and away from education facilities with as much haste as possible.  Second, our education process is in many cases partly or wholly voluntary; we may be attending AU merely for personal development.  And, when an education fails the what are you going to do with that test, the looks askance proliferate like spring mushrooms.  As with drivers idling with their windows rolled up, why don’t we let the proverbial real world in? But herein lies the crux; AU allows our minds to stretch out and embrace an expansiveness not necessary tied to the landscapes we corporeally inhabit.

Descartes and his Dream, or was he Mad?

Aristotle famously stated that we must know ourselves and, in pursuit of this end, the equally memorable Rene Descartes comprised his Meditations, wherein he sat alone with his fire and considered what, if anything, he could know with supreme certainty.  His conclusion was ‘cogito, ergo sum’; I think, therefore I am.  To be sure he was thinking Descartes had to take leave of his senses enough to conclude that his mind, separate from his body, was the essential instrument of his existence.  After all, no brain in a jar can match or replicate the fecund garden that is a human mind.  Neuroscience explains much and yet the vividness of a dream remains beyond the sway of even the best brain scan.  Likewise, all Descartes could be sure of was that indeed he was a thinking being.  To arrive at this conclusion he had to conclude that he wasn’t dreaming; otherwise even his own thoughts could be an illusion.

Michel Foucault noted that Descartes’ emergent thought, that would come to be named Cartesian, required a provisional certainty that sensory impressions were lucid as real rather than only a really believable dream.  Foucault stated that in life there are “impressions which, in the first instance, one would be quite tempted not to doubt.  They are the same impressions that can be found identically in dreaming” (Foucualt, 583).  Unless a dream is lucid it feels for a time as true as daily life; how are we to know the difference? Just as we ponder a new morsel of course material, perhaps stroking an imaginary philosophic beard as we digest the information, so too do drivers at the town dump have a moment to transcend the material bondage of their status as chore-do-ers.  In a sense, then, any moment where our mind can roam free of immediate material preoccupations, is a moment of dreaming in that we are not clearly and distinctly engaging in what from a physical point of view would appear to be clear and present reality.

Far from being a bit mad, the rich inner life of drivers in a lineup composes the essential substrate of their existence in that moment.  As with monks the world over, the mind becomes ground zero for reality.  And this surely is where many judgements and misunderstandings arise.  Staring off into space appears a waste of time when in fact it can be part of a creative and constructive cycle.

For Descartes to arrive at his foundational belief that he could at least be certain that he was himself sitting and thinking he first discounted that he was dreaming.  Tied to this assumption was “the word ‘eccentric’, which is used to characterize both the imagination of the mad and the fantasy of dreamers.  And as dreamers are even more eccentric than the mad, madness dissolves quite naturally into dreaming” (Foucualt, 582).  There’s a fine mental line there, and to be truly creative and think outside the box surely means to embrace our inner mad genius.  After all, learning to think critically isn’t necessarily comparable to filling out a Sudoko puzzle or a Bingo card.  It requires rigorous flexibility and a syncretic capacity to combine information in new, and even hitherto unimagined ways.

So to be certain that he was certain about his singular certainty, that he himself was sitting there thinking, Descartes had also to discount that he was dreaming of his own peculiar certainty and also to discount that he was insane.  Following this line of thought, Foucault notes that if the line of possible madness was followed too far “I might disqualify myself” and risk “carrying out nothing more than an eccentric meditation” (Foucualt, 583).  The fact that our studies are part of a larger educational project helps focus us and keep us from meandering off and away from the productive pursuit of our degree.  Lifelong learning on our own time is great but AU gives us a concrete purpose; it’s no coincidence that while many people may own, say, Naomi Klein’s book No Logo, to have it as part of a course syllabus gives us a definite push to really engage with it’s content and read it cover to cover.  In the end, we are left with the tangible diploma bearing our credentials but at a deeper level our selves as changed beings.  One cannot unlearn the sociological imagination; like developing facility in a new language, we will always be more capable of thinking ourselves in to the larger framework of society once we’ve taken sociology courses.  This applies uniquely to each academic discipline.

Learning represents an invisible force not easily quantified in physical terms (although certainly in terms of wage outcome!).  Just as daydreams and night dreams each remain outside of recordable reality, our learning itself eludes the sensory and can remain especially invisible to others (and least until we open our mouth to speak!).  As happens occasionally, one’s laptop may fail or one might chuck out legions of old school notes.  And after that, what is learning reduced to? Nothing measurable or tangible in a physical way.  Learning exists in our changed minds but, like an especially vibrant dream, lurks nowhere in the material world.  And yet, like Descartes, we know that, as learners, inputs are leading us to grow and think in new and important ways.  But AU’s not a woodworking or sewing class where we bring home gifts for the family although we probably will be great at editing any letters they have to write.  The gifts we bring are primarily to ourselves, it’s only in their use that their reality is made manifest.

Next week we’ll dive deeper into the mental landscape of education and the gentle curvature that demarcates internal mental dreamland from external physical reality.

Foucault, M.  (1972).  ‘Reply to Derrida’.  In History of Madness.  New York: Routledge.