Explanatory prowess often begins with a metaphor. Take bubbles, for instance. They can be blown, popped, or inhabited. Social distancing is inseparable from the metaphor of a bubble and distance education runs with the notion that each of our identities contains an inland empire of meaning and activity. Likewise, the sky’s the limit in our studies so long as we keep enough fidelity to our personal bubble that we find the time and space to accomplish our coursework. But what are our identities really composed of and what does it really mean to accomplish a fulfilling task?
Ancient Greece holds as many answers as questions to the nature of our bubble-self, but two key themes emerge. First, we have Heraclitus who famously claimed that one cannot step into the same river twice. Makes sense. Whether the Bow, the Kicking Horse, the Fraser, or the Athabasca, rivers are like any social context that flows and is apt to carry us away rather than allow us ingress to its theoretical core. Cratylus replied to Heraclitus, however, that one cannot in fact step into the same river even once (Kerferd, G.B., 1967). We can never truly know other people, or our course material, as external objects; knowledge depends upon adding ourselves to the mixture and creating something new. The flow of life outside our bubble drifts downstream and stops not for the meandering travels of our mortal selves. Our lives and circumstances are permeable; if they weren’t, 2020 wouldn’t be remembered for our fear of wee beasties.
Spongy Selves in Streams of Meaning
It seems that Cratylus was right. Illusions of stability, even for a nanosecond, are fictions fraught with metaphor in the negative, wishy-washy, sense. Consider the stream of your consciousness; it’s like a series of pictures strung together on a synaptic clothesline. The flow of our mind is akin to an old comic book where if you rustled the corners of the pages at the proper speed a little animated image would appear. Life moves as a movie, yet we are viewing simultaneously as audience and participant. But to know or see anything is about more than rustling the pages of perceptions.
To forge meaning out of the flurry of activity external to our bubble is to take a grand omniscient view and translate raw perception into real cognition. Our bubbles, too, are more a method of data analysis than a pure and splendid isolation in which we conduct our studies or prevent infection. Our thoughts aren’t only private to others; an inborn conversation with ourself entails the taking of multiple streams of thought within our imagined whole flowing self. We absorb like sponges and then consider the consequences.
Our bubbles are also susceptible to coercive invasion, and this illustrates our boundaries of awareness and action. Karl Marx stated that the key to our human essence lies in our creative capacity to, through labour—including labours of craft, love and creativity—engage in “free conscious activity that constitutes the species-character of man” ( Wartenberg, T.E, 1982). In bubble terms, this means that our selves are changeable and no more capable of being pinned down than is the beauty of a butterfly onto a collection pad or the quack of a duck onto a dissection table. Thomas E. Wartenberg from Duke University notes the devil in the details of the simple assumption that free creativity is the essence of a fulfilling human nature. Wartenberg wrote that Marx’s thesis statement “leads to a critique of various ‘ahistorical’ theories of human nature present in the philosophic and economic tradition”
We are no more one type of human, with one natural and essential nature than we are led through history by a single driving moral force. Material conditions, rather than endemic traits, drive history according to the Marxist model.
Floating in an Ether of Meaning, But We HAVE The Tethers
In our studies, we may at times feel weightless or timeless, attached to a vast sea of meaning and learning while our essential selves remain constant. Yet consider the chemist, Robert Boyle, who, in the 1600s, developed his notion of gases, the stuff of bubbles: “experiments with gases dealt with what he called the “spring of air.” These experiments were based on the observation that gases are elastic.” In this sense, our identities may parallel gases that inhabit a space such that their expansive flowing essence springs out in abundant glory or becomes compressed in an almost claustrophobic density. Our vision and view from our bubble of self may be as broad or as narrow as we choose.
Thinking about the space between ourselves and others, and how within ourselves there’s space between different versions of ourself and between our different and competing silos of knowledge, reminds us that value-neutral vacuums exist neither in our minds, nor in our hearts, nor in our unconscious, nor in our society. Thinking becomes, as we continue our education, a matter of prioritizing which of many options for our time and space are most important.
We’re not only internally bubbled; we also have to reach out of the confines of our study minds. Key to AU success is our ability to apply, even in translation, components of our learning to those around us. Our best discursive success is when we use our learning to work with, rather than against or above, others. Out of our bubbled ivory towers there’s no sense in getting pedantic or, God-forbid, sounding too school-smart, lest we be accused of lacking life smarts. A useful and fun tool for remembering to respect interlocutors of all backgrounds appears in the writing of one of the earliest recorded Greek philosophers: Parmenides.
In a mythic encounter with charioteer goddesses Parmenides claimed to discover that in fact there is no not so at a cosmic level. Parmenides wrote: “Come now, I will tell you … the only routes of inquiry that are for thinking: the one, that it is and that it is not possible for it not to be, is the path of Persuasion (for it attends upon Truth), the other, that it is not and that it is right that it not be, this indeed I declare to you to be a path entirely unable to be investigated: For neither can you know what is not (for it is not to be accomplished) nor can you declare it.” (Cohen, S. M. 2003).
Accepting the Other Means We’re Learning How to Learn
Essentially, for Parmenides and we at AU facing beliefs we’ve learned to discount, there is no not-so because what’s unthinkable can’t be known. Our bubbles fail and pop from hubris if they do not absorb at a reasonable rate. Every belief and statement has some reality and thus, in at least a small way, a share of truth. If we can think or believe something it must exist at some level, right? Certainly it’s entered our brain bubble if we’ve been listening. But before fake news becomes a norm in our minds we can recall a key form of bubble diplomacy: describing what’s contained within our mental realms of learning while being equally open to the viewpoints of an Other.
Where current events, political beliefs and traditional knowledge are concerned, there’s no sense in clinging to simple dichotomies of right and wrong. Another ancient philosopher, this time Zhuangzhi of Chinese origin, comes in handy. He said: “there is nothing that is not so, nothing that is not acceptable” Bearing this in mind, our bubbles can serve their purpose for health and productivity while not encouraging us to cling to narrow mindsets. Learning is about expanding our awareness of the panoply of discursive possibilities in our social realms.
Our bubbles are open reservoirs of meaning while being, like any epistemic baseline, inherently limited. Just the other day I was plugging in my laptop at the television so the household could watch an edifying documentary. Up popped a Youtube link to a punk song; it’s title elicited a call from the tie-dyed-in-the-soul peanut gallery that went “Berkeley Heathen Scum’!? Now tell us what you really think!” Amid guffaws, a song by that title illustrated the bounds of my bubble. I’m not just a sociology major with academic pretensions; I’m also a Peter Pan punker who ironically happened to be the only male in his high school grad class with hair long enough to touch his ears.
Contradictions and dialectics abound within and without the bubbles of our identity. We may seem cloyingly academic in one moment or like petulant punks in another, but it’s all true and it’s all us. And if we work hard our studies will expand the gaseous nature of our selves such that our bubbles feel grander and more gratifying. The reality of a successful identity is how it at once evolves and stands the test of time. By being open to new inputs while forming a coherent core, we grow into our best possible selves. Gratefully, AU furnishes us with opportunities to better ourselves both in learning and in life. May our life bubbles blow freely as we study on these sultry summer days!