Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Can Information Technology Deliver Us from Capitalism?

Will information technology succeed where popular movements have failed in leading us out of capitalism?  That is British journalist Paul Mason's contention.

Mason says that because information technology has reduced the need for workers by automating more forms of work, disrupted price structures by flooding the market with an abundance of information, and facilitated new mechanisms of sharing and trade, it has begun to erode the fundamental structures of capitalism, coupled with external stresses, it will move us, over time, and with fits and starts, toward a post-capitalist world.   The new project of the Left, he argues, should be the creation of alternative structures and institutions to replace those of the dominant culture as they disintegrate.   

There is much to like about Mason's essay.  I agree with his contention that information technology has been an important force for liberation and for the establishment of a new commons in some spheres.  (Though,  we ignore the ways in which it also facilitates new forms or repression at our own peril.  The manifestation of Foucault's Panopticon in the form of surveillance technologies and the development of drone warfare are as much expressions of information technology as are cell phone cameras that can document police violence and technologies that democratize media.)   I also agree that the Left would be well served by an increased focus on what Gandhi called the constructive program.  (Though as a counterpart to, not as a replacement for, resistance.   Mason argues that we need to stop engaging in defensive tactics.  I think that we need to both defend communities, human and wild, and carve out new liberated spaces at the same time.)   And there is the fact that a major British journalist is joining the growing and diverse list of public figures from Russell Brand to Pope Francis who are openly and directly critiquing capitalism in a culture that had been largely silent about capitalism since the end of the Cold War.

But Mason's account of the emergence of capitalism is deeply flawed in ways that also cloud his analysis of the present and the future.  He writes:

The feudal model of agriculture collided, first, with environmental limits and then with a massive external shock – the Black Death. After that, there was a demographic shock: too few workers for the land, which raised their wages and made the old feudal obligation system impossible to enforce. The labour shortage also forced technological innovation. The new technologies that underpinned the rise of merchant capitalism were the ones that stimulated commerce (printing and accountancy), the creation of tradeable wealth (mining, the compass and fast ships) and productivity (mathematics and the scientific method).The feudal model of agriculture collided, first, with environmental limits and then with a massive external shock – the Black Death. After that, there was a demographic shock: too few workers for the land, which raised their wages and made the old feudal obligation system impossible to enforce. The labour shortage also forced technological innovation. The new technologies that underpinned the rise of merchant capitalism were the ones that stimulated commerce (printing and accountancy), the creation of tradeable wealth (mining, the compass and fast ships) and productivity (mathematics and the scientific method).

This account begins with a popular misconception:  that communal agriculture in feudal Europe collapsed because it over-stripped the carrying capacity of the land.  The concept comes from a 1968 article by Garrett Hardin called "The Tragedy of the Commons."  Hardin argued that in a situation where people farmed land in common, as was common in feudal England, nobody would protect the commons because each individual farmer would have an interest in using more than their share of resources and no incentive for conservation.   Hardin's surmise was taken as historical fact -- despite a complete lack of evidence that any such thing did happen.  If anything, it appears that communities of peasants organized to regulate the use of common resources.

The end of communal agriculture in England was, in, fact, quite brutal and bloody.  People were driven out of their communities and into the cities as communal land was forcibly seized and privatized and sold to people who had become wealthy as a result of Spain paying back its debts to British and other Western European creditors with gold and silver looted from the Americas.   This created not a shortage, but an abundance of available labor, which provided the workforce for British industrialization. 

This points to the second major flaw in Mason's reading of the history of capitalism -- Mason suggests that technologies like sailing ships and mining techniques were the drivers of capitalism's evolution while ignoring the human and material elements of the system.  Technology appears as a force that precipitates cultural change rather than a product of that change.   (For an excellent critique of this position see Raymond Williams' "The Technology and the Society.")     In his technological determinism, Mason misses a process vital to the emergence of capitalism:  the process of accumulation.

Marx observed that the rise of capitalism was dependent on the influx of new wealth in the form of precious metals from the Americas which spawned the emergence of a managerial class, that most beloved class of modern politicians -- the middle class, which Marx called the bourgeoisie.   Silvia Federici points out that Marx's account of primitive accumulation was incomplete since it ignored the enclosure of the commons, the driving of rural workers into the cities to form the basis of the proletariat, the creation of a domestic sphere in which women provided free labor, and the witch persecutions which created a climate of terror that facilitated these changes.   Slavery provided the work force for capitalist expansion in the Americas, following on the heels of genocide.

Federici also points out that because it depends on infinite growth (nevermind the impossibility of such a thing given the laws of thermodynamics), "capitalism must engage in continual accumulation "capitalist accumulation is structurally dependent on the free appropriation of immense quantities of labor and resources that must appear as externalities to the market"

So does the information economy.  This "post industrial" economy still depends on industry and agriculture, these simply occur out of the sight of most people in wealthy nations.  The infrastructure of the information economy depends on the mining of minerals and the extraction of fossil fuels from lands expropriated from Indigenous communities and the labor of the displaced rural people from these areas in mines, oil and gas wells, and factories.   Will these people be invited to be full participants in a "post-capitalist" economy?  And is that what they and their communities want?  Most likely not, but Mason doesn't tell us.

Exits from capitalism have always been available to some for a price.   The communes of the 1960's and 1970's were largely populated by the children of the bourgeoisie.   Burners celebrate the cashless economy of Burning Man while forgetting the process of accumulation that feeds it -- people come to the desert to give away resources they obtained by succeeding within a capitalist economy, often with the benefit of racial, class, and colonial privilege.   The post-capitalism Mason envisions may have room for more people, and may even be accessible to most people in the US and Canada and northwestern Europe and parts of Asia, but its hard to see it actually having room for everyone.  This is not to say that such exits from capitalism play no role in transforming it -- but they are not complete, they are not enough.

The technologies themselves at play are of mixed provenance.  On the one hand they are the product of the Cold War drive to maintain military control in the event of a nuclear war.  On the other hand they are the product the work of groups that included a lot of neurodivergent people who had eaten fungi and fungal derivatives rich in serotonergic alkaloids creating a silicon simularum of mycelial webs.   There were both repressive and liberatory impulses involved in the emergence of our information technologies, and they continue to be used in both repressive and liberatory ways.

Adrienne Rich once wrote "Poetry never stood a chance of standing outside of history."  Neither does technology.   Technological developments will both shape and be shaped by the people who engage them, who in turn are influenced by a host of political, economic, cultural, economic, spiritual, and magical forces.   We can't rely on technology to bring down capitalism.   We have to use it and engage it strategically in combination with old, new, and very old strategies of resistance and cultural innovation.  

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Vox Clamantis in Deserto

It's Midsummer's Eve and the temperate rainforest I call home has turned hot and dry after months without rain, and I am awake after midnight, weeping at the beauty and power of a papal encyclical.

Two years ago, a month before my initiation as a Feri Priest, I wrote about the intense liberation I felt with the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, which helped to break the chains the Church still had wrapped around my sense of myself in the world.

Now, freed of that relationship, I am able to read the words of his successor, Pope Francis, with new eyes, and recognize a surprising resonance with my own Pagan practice. 

"Pagan"  and "Heathen" are words that originally referred to the unchurched and unlettered people of the countryside, and these were the people Francis of Assisi ministered to -- a ministry marked not by conversion but by inclusion in  an animist form of Christianity, which saw plants and animals and sun and rain and wind and stars as humanity's kin.  It is telling and significant that the saint's namesake draws quite explicitly on that original Franciscan language, theology, and spirit in an encyclical addressed not to Catholics but to the world.   The Pope writes:
Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason”. His response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists. His disciple Saint Bonaventure tells us that, “from a reflection on the primary source of all things, filled with even more abundant piety, he would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’”. Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously.
And, then, comes the really astounding part:
The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.
With these words, Pope Francis challenges the cosmology of capitalism, resurrecting a world that was declared dead, and calling for a new politics and a new economics that recognize the inherent worth and rights of all life, human or otherwise.  

He goes on to explicitly condemn anthropocentrism -- a complete reversal of Benedict XVI's position that challenges to the concept of a human centered world were inherently heretical.   Writing of biodiversity, he says:
It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential “resources” to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.

It may well disturb us to learn of the extinction of mammals or birds, since they are more visible. But the good functioning of ecosystems also requires fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of microorganisms. Some less numerous species, although generally unseen, nonetheless play a critical role in maintaining the equilibrium of a particular place. Human beings must intervene when a geosystem reaches a critical state. But nowadays, such intervention in nature has become more and more frequent. As a consequence, serious problems arise, leading to further interventions; human activity becomes ubiquitous, with all the risks which this entails. Often a vicious circle results, as human intervention to resolve a problem further aggravates the situation. For example, many birds and insects which disappear due to synthetic agrotoxins are helpful for agriculture: their disappearance will have to be compensated for by yet other techniques which may well prove harmful. We must be grateful for the praiseworthy efforts being made by scientists and engineers dedicated to finding solutions to man-made problems. But a sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly. We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.
What we are witnessing here is a fundamental theological shift --  the Pope is moving the Church's position from a view of a world created by God for human use to a view of a world in which all life is sacred.  

He aligns himself and the Church, as well, with Indigenous people, taking the position that they are  best caretakers of their traditional homelands, and that they deserve to be allowed to honor an protect  "a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values."  These words are coming from the leader of a Church which for centuries blessed the extermination, forced conversion, and forced assimilation of Indigenous people.   Now, witnessing a world devastated by colonialism and capitalism, the Pope is completely rewriting Church doctrine.

Its appropriate that this comes just weeks after the Vatican beatified Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed by U.S.-trained assassins for speaking out on behalf of El Salvador's poor.   Like Pope Francis, Romero was a quiet and moderate man who distanced himself from politics -- until he could no longer ignore the suffering around him.   Romero said "“There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried”   I wonder at the miracle of the tears that have cleared the eyes of Pope Francis.

Pope Francis believes in a single God.  Though he also speaks of Mary, beautifully, as the Mother and Queen of the universe:

Mary, the Mother who cared for Jesus, now cares with maternal affection and pain for this wounded world. Just as her pierced heart mourned the death of Jesus, so now she grieves for the sufferings of the crucified poor and for the creatures of this world laid waste by human power. Completely transfigured, she now lives with Jesus, and all creatures sing of her fairness. She is the Woman, “clothed in the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” Carried up into heaven, she is the Mother and Queen of all creation. In her glorified body, together with the Risen Christ, part of creation has reached the fullness of its beauty. She treasures the entire life of Jesus in her heart and now understands the meaning of all things. Hence, we can ask her to enable us to look at this world with eyes of wisdom.
 My spirituality is rooted not in belief, but in relationships -- and my relationships are with many gods - the Feri gods and the gods of my ancestors - and with plants and animals and rivers and stars.

But that is almost all that separates my view of the world from the view Pope Francis articulates in this encyclical.

And that brings great healing to this once Catholic heart.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Rainbow Family, Leave the Oglala Sioux Alone!

I was saddened and disturbed today to learn that the Rainbow Family is planning to gather, uninvited, in the Sacred Hills of the Oglala Lakota Nation.   This is an act of tremendous disrespect against people who have been fighting genocide and colonization for centuries.

Early reports are that Rainbow Family "scouts" have been showing up at sacred sites, dismissing requests to stay away, answering them with promises that the Rainbow Family will leave the land "better than they found it."  These are the same words outsiders have been using for years to justify their disrespect for  Oglala Sioux sovereignty. 

The plans to leave the land "better than they found it" include plans to bring in non-native plants and plant them all over the Sacred Hills which are essential habitat for the plants that are at the core of the nation's traditional medicine.

All of this is happening as the Oglala Lakota are preparing to go into the season of vision quests and prepare for the Sundance.

The Rainbow Family's plans are unspeakably arrogant, ignorant, and destructive.


-- Do not take part in this gathering in any way.

-- Speak out against the Rainbow Family's disrespect for Indigenous sovereignty.

-- If you have information about the specific location of the Rainbow Family's June 17 Spring Council in South Dakota, pass it on so people from the tribe can try to talk some sense into those planning the gathering.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Beyond Adaptogens: Holistic Strategies for Surviving Late Capitalism

A little while back, I wrote about the problem with using adaptogens as our primary way of addressing stress -- basically, the function of adaptogens is to allow people to continue to function at relatively high levels while under stress without necessarily mitigating the damage done by that stress.  In the process they tend to normalize the intolerable conditions of people's lives under late capitalism. 

I promised I would follow up with some suggestions about other therapeutic strategies for dealing with stress - -  harm reduction techniques that we can use while we await the removal of the largest obstacles cure in human history - structural violence and systematic oppression.  So, here are a few approaches I am using in my practice:

Removing Straw from the Camel's Back: Reducing the Allostatic Load

Stress occurs when we experience a real or perceived threat to our ability to meet our survival needs and maintain health.   Allostasis is the ability of our bodies to fluidly respond to stressful situations -- for example, under normal circumstances, if we here a bump in the night our muscles might tense and our heart rates might increase, but when we realize its just a cat leaping from the couch to the floor, our heart rates would slow down again and our muscles would relax.

Each of us has a limit, though, an amount of stress we can respond to fluidly.   If I were sleep deprived and worried about someone breaking into my apartment my heart rate might stay elevated and my muscles might stay tense even after I realized the sound I heard was just a jumping cat.

The things that take reduce our ability to respond to change collectively form our allostatic load.   Unresolved trauma, especially from early childhood, takes its toll on us, reducing our capacity to respond to new stressors.  So does having unreliable access to the means to meet out basic survival needs - food, warmth, loving connection.   And because poverty and oppression make people more vulnerable to attack and limit people's ability to meet their fundamental needs, they tend to have a tremendous impact on our allostatic load.   The greater the allostatic load, the less capacity we have to heal.

This phenomenon partially explains the seemingly sudden emergence of chronic conditions -- thyroid disorders that begin in pregnancy, food sensitivities that seem to appear in stressful times in adulthood, etc.   The underlying pattern giving rise to the condition has often existed for a long time, but the body was able to correct for it and prevent the development of symptoms until something came along that overwhelmed its ability to maintain allosatasis.

As practitioners, we are often tempted to focus on finding the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back -- the stressor that finally pushed the body into a state where it could no longer regulate itself.   But identifying and removing that particular stressor is less important than reducing the overall allostatic load.   The camel's back will heal best when the load it is carrying is smaller.  At that point it won't matter whether the straw that broke it is among the straws that remain or among the straws that were removed.

So I work with people to find what changes we can make in their lives that will make things just a little bit easier: finding foods we can add to help their bodies be more deeply nourished, working on strategies for deeper sleep,  reducing pain, addressing acute anxiety, any helpful change that can be incorporated in a person's daily life without adding stress.  (I will sometimes advise against particular changes, like quitting Tobacco, if someone is really shaken up or really depleted, and making that change will cause more stress than it will relieve.)   As simple changes come into place, room gradually opens for larger changes.   When a person reaches a place of relative stability and solidity I often recommend working on some of the deeper factors contributing to the allostatic load.  I tend to find somatic approaches to healing from trauma to be especially effective at that stage.


Feelings of helplessness and isolation often accompany or underlie chronic stress.  Solidarity is a powerful antidote to alienation -- when we know that others are standing with us in our struggles for survival and liberation,  the challenges we are up against become a little bit less overwhelming.

One of my goals as a practitioner is to shift the dynamic in the sessions I hold with people from one where a patient is receiving a commodified service from an expert professional to one in which everyone in the room is on equal footing, working together to find ways to shift challenging situations in one person's life.   Part of that work involves witnessing that person's pain and that person's strength, and part of it involves coming to collective agreement about what changes we want to try to create and how we want to go about making those changes.   In all of this, the degree to which our plans fit the person's life and increase their experience of personal sovereignty. 

Whatever else does or doesn't happen, creating spaces where people can shift their experience of health care as something done to them to an experience of health care as something done with them can often bring profound healing in and of itself.

Connection with the Living World

Our nervous systems and endocrine systems evolved in the context of a world rich with phytochemical and mycochemical stimuli, molecules morphologically and functionally similar to our internal chemistries of thought and emotion. And the chemistries of the plants and fungi in our ancestral environments would shift and change subtly in response to the chemical outputs of their human inhabitants. Mental and emotional regulation were never meant to strictly inside jobs.

In an article last year I wrote:

Our ancestors evolved in a context where they were constantly taking in a varied abundance of medicines through breathing in the chemicals plants were releasing into the air, absorbing chemicals from plants as they brushed against them with their skin, drinking in the chemicals that filtered from their root systems into the water – and that is not even taking into account the plants they ingested. This wove them integrally into the ecosystems they inhabited, and the fluidity of those ecosystems and the ever changing nature of the chemical inputs into their bodies created a fluidity in their experience. Water soluble compounds from plants interacted with their endocrine systems and oil soluble compounds from plants altered their brain chemistries, shifting their perceptions.

Simply bringing people into the presence of plants or bringing plants into the presence of people reawakens our sense of connection with the living world.

Aromatic plant compounds have a special role to play here.  Inhaling the volatile oils of plants sets off a chain of events which activate the parasympathetic ("rest and digest") nervous system and relax tension in the small muscles around the blood vessels, helping us come down from the "fight, flight, or freeze" response.  (For more on this see Guido Masé's The Wild Medicine Solution.)   This is likely one of the reasons that the Japanese practice of "forest bathing" seems to have such a profound effect in preventing and ameliorating stress-related illnesses.

These are just a few initial thoughts on approaches to mitigating chronic stress -- please share your thoughts and strategies in the comment section below!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

NEW CLASS: Changeling Medicine - Herbs and Autism

10 Teleseminars
June - August  2015
Sliding scale:  $100 - 300

some full and partial scholarships available for Autistic/Neurodivergent/NeuroQueer people who would not otherwise be able to afford to participate

William Blake famously wrote of the doors of perception which, when cleansed, opened into the infinite.   Contemporary neurobiology calls these doors sensory gating channels.  To be Autistic is to live in the world with those doors wide open. In this course, led by an Autistic herbalist, we will explore and de-pathologize Autism, look at how concepts of "neurotypicality" and "high function" and "low function"  arise from and serve a capitalist culture and do violence to Autistic people, and explore the ways in which plant relationships and plant medicines can help Autistic people deal with the sensory overwhelm that comes from living in this culture and with health struggles that commonly impact Autistic people.  

The course will consist of a series of lectures delivered via conference call which will also be available as recordings for those who are unable to call in when the lectures are happening.   There will also be an e-mail discussion list where participants can ask questions and share experiences and where the instructor will share articles and other resources.

No prior knowledge of herbalism or neurobiology are needed.  Compassion and respect are expected and required at all times.

Week 1 -- Queering Neurobiology:  Neurotypicality and Neurodivergence

Week 2-  Sensory Gating 

Week 3 --  Cooling the Head

Week 4 -- Cutting through the Fog

Week 5 -- Safe Touch and the Oxytocic Paradox

Week 6 -- Porousness and Empathy

Week 7 -- The Trouble with Normal:  Stress, Trauma, and Passing

Week 8 --  Nutrition and Digestive Health 

Week  9 -- Autoimmunity and Inflammation

Week 10 --  Neurodivergence and Magic

Conference calls will be scheduled for the day and time the greatest number of participants can consistently attend.

To register or for more information e-mail seandonahueherbalist@gmail.com


Thursday, March 12, 2015

Of Capitalism and Cortisol (or the trouble with adaptogens)

 Recently, while preparing a lecture on stress hormones, I came across a quote from the Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst,  Slavoj Žižek:
"Think about the strangeness of today's situation. Thirty, forty years ago, we were still debating about what the future will be: communist, fascist, capitalist, whatever. Today, nobody even debates these issues. We all silently accept global capitalism is here to stay. On the other hand, we are obsessed with cosmic catastrophes: the whole life on earth disintegrating, because of some virus, because of an asteroid hitting the earth, and so on. So the paradox is, that it's much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism"
and it struck me that what Žižek describes is the collective manifestation of the effects of consistently high levels cortisol on consciousness.

Cortisol, like all of our hormones, alters our consciousness.   Released by the adrenal cortex, cortisol serves to keep us in a position to respond to danger when an immediate threat has passed but we are not entirely safe yet.  It acts to elevate our blood sugar so more energy will be quickly available to our muscles, to dampen the inflammatory responses brought on by the adrenaline/norepinephrine response we had to the initial threat, to favor the storage of excess energy as fat over the construction of muscle -- and to make us more afraid of and more prone to perceive immediate, cataclysmic threats in the world around us while also diminishing our cognitive capacities.

From an ancestral survival standpoint this all makes sense -- if you have just escaped from a mountain lion you are better off perceiving a rabbit in the bushes as another mountain lion than perceiving a mountain lion in the bushes as a rabbit.   In response to short term stresses, pessimism serves us well.   And you are also better off remaining focused on crashing sounds in the bushes than on contemplating the nature of mountain lions or future strategies for dealing with them.

In a contemporary context, this doesn't serve us.  When the threats to our survival come from not being ale to pay the rent or afford groceries or from not knowing whether we will be shot by police as we walk down the street we seldom reach a point where we can relax fully enough for our cortisol levels to go down because the threat never really goes away.   High cortisol levels cause us to be prone to fear of sudden disasters, and they diminish our ability to analyze the situation and see alternatives.  They also, of course, contribute to stress-related illnesses.

Contemporary responses to chronic stress amount to battlefield medicine.  The role of a military medic is not to help people  heal but to get troops back onto the battlefield as quickly as possible.  Under capitalism, the role of health care workers is not to help people heal but to restore their economic productivity.   And this gets justified in terms of meeting patients' expressed needs, because most people's day to day survival depends on their being able to continue to work to earn money to meet their basic needs, so the patients themselves get put in the position of needing to ask for the medicine that will restore their functionality rather than the treatment that will support their recuperation and restore their vitality --  since the latter requires rest and restructuring of life, luxuries available only to those with enough wealth not to worry about where their next meal is coming from.

The same imperative was true under state Communism.   Soviet scientists set out to find medicines that would improve people's ability to perform key functions under prolonged stress.   They discovered them in a class of herbs they called adaptogens -- herbs which act by extending the cortisol dominated resistance stage of stress, staving off a complete adrenal crash.   The first such herb researched was Siberian Ginseng -- which was found to allow auto-workers to work long hours at grueling jobs without having to take as many sick days as those who didn't take the herb.

Reimagined in a capitalist context, adaptogens are sold and prescribed as herbs to help people remain active and focused while living stressful lives.  They do this -- for a while.   They buy time, putting off the point where the body can no longer function in the ways a person wants it to, masking and delaying symptoms of fatigue that would normally tell us we have pushed ourselves too far.   And, yes, sometimes that is necessary -- a person working three jobs to feed their kids can't take a week off to sleep and can't reduce their hours and can't go off to the woods for days on end.   But they are not really a solution to the problem at hand, and we need to be honest about this.  Especially because they tend to have the effect of making us normalize the situations we are living in and inhibiting the process of questioning the systems that make survival so brutally difficult.

Last December, I wrote:
"It makes no sense to speak of healing people if we are not willing to address what is making them sick and ultimately killing them.   I tell my students all the time that my prescription for everyone who walks into our clinic is the complete transformation of this society, and that anything else we do is harm reduction -- necessary and often life saving but not curative.  And while I don't have a roadmap to guide that transformation, I can tell you one thing -- the first step is refusing to accept the cruelty and suffering around us as normal.  Because the trouble with normal is that it always gets worse."
Maybe the process begins with giving people medicines and practices that connect them with new senses of possibility --  in my next post I will explore some of these approaches .  .


Want to read more about dreaming and thinking and working our way out of the mess capitalism has put us in?  Go to:  http://godsandradicals.org/

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Hyperlexic Paradox

The precocious development of a large vocabulary and the use of unusual and complex sentence structures are common elements begins of early childhood for many Aspies, and remain a features of our communications well into adulthood.   And it is one of the reasons we are so often misread.

Some see us as cold or formal or distant because to those who don't know us well our expression comes across as more similar to literary or academic writing than colloquial speech -- a byproduct of our hyperlexia.  When you are 9 and the only person whose words reflect an understanding of your inner reality is a dead Irish poet, you tend to find yourself communicating in strange ways.  And those habits stick.

Others take the complexity of our language and our obsessions with it as signs  that we feel at home expressing ourselves with words.  For me, they indicate the exact opposite.

All my life, I have been trying to communicate what I think and feel in a language that evolved from a way of viewing the world completely alien to my own experience.   In the folklore of my ancestors, precocious speech was seen as a sign that a child might be a changeling -- all I can say is that is not far off the mark.   From an early age I always imagined that I came from another world where people thought and felt like I did.  I assimilated language in an unsuccessful attempt to explain my reality.  And when speech and prose failed, I tried poetry.

Speaking of the way modern Irish literature grew out of the experience of colonization, Malachy McCourt thanked the English "for stuffing their language down our throats so that we could regurgitate it in glorious colors."  I could say the same of the "gift" of a language shaped by a culture that aims to limit the acceptable bounds of sensation and perception -- being an Autistic person whose only available means of communication was a language shaped by neurotypical assumptions made me a poet. 

 Ironic, perhaps, because the assumption is commonly made that Aspies don't understand metaphor.  But what I actually find is that usually when I am speaking literally people take it as metaphor, because what I am speaking of exists outside the world that their sensory gating allows them to perceive, and when I am speaking metaphorically people tend to take what I am saying literally, because I have translated it into terms that appear more concrete to them than my actual concrete experiences do (which tend, in turn, to be misinterpreted as abstractions.)

You might think that being a poet makes it easy for me to express my feelings.  But I write poetry precisely because everyday language doesn't readily convey what I feel.   When it comes to things I am feeling intensely, sometimes conversation is nearly impossible.   Knowing that my words will only express an approximation of what I am saying, I become slow and meticulous in attempting to choose each one.   And each one also is a signifier fraught with a dozen layers of meaning for me.  And sometimes typing or uttering them can bring me into a place of being completely overwhelmed by the thoughts and feelings they evoke.

And once I have written or spoken words, I often hear them repeated to me in a new context that shifts their meaning.  I hesitate in conversation when it is important for something I say to be understood because I see how quickly meanings I did not intend can become attached to my words, and the ways in which the words I use take on a life of their own.  As Adrienne Rich writes in her poem, "North American Time"

"Everything we write
will be used against us
or against those we love.
These are the terms,
take them or leave them.
Poetry never stood a chance
of standing outside history.
One line typed twenty years ago
can be blazed on a wall in spraypaint
to glorify art as detachment
or torture of those we
did not love but also
did not want to kill.

"We move but our words stand
become responsible

for more than we intended

"and this is verbal privilege"

A verbal privilege not shared by my Autistic kin who this culture deems "low functioning" and who most people assume lack a rich inner life -- until someone like Carly Fleischmann finds a way to all too briefly break into the world of language and describe her experiences.  (That is, until they are silenced by electroconvulsive therapy as Carly was . . .)

Sometimes speaking or writing at all feels like a betrayal of my own heart and my own experience.  The harsh sounds of English doesn't reflect their flow.  The concepts the words of the language refer to are not mine.   The history that shaped the language and the culture is a history of brutality.   And I want to stand outside of history.  But poetry never stood a chance of standing outside history, and neither did I.

And so I write.  Knowing that I will be misunderstood.