"The Flesh of Language" by David Abram [Cosmos Café 2021-09-30]

Audio:


Flesh.
The muscular parts of animal bodies beneath the skin. Or, in the visual arts, the skin is flesh in its many colors and textures. Flesh is carnal, meaty, the substantial body of living creatures. It gives us brawn and frame; substance and stance. Also, there is the flesh and blood, the ‘near-kindred’; we are connected to each other through our proximity, our relationships, our experiences shared over meals and conversations. Yet, as we meat virtually “in the flesh”, we sense there is some other substance that arises when we share words and flesh out ideas.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the French phenomenologist that David Abram reincarnates in his essay “The Flesh of Langauge”, uses flesh in an alternate manner. There is the visible flesh, yes. But what of this invisible substance that arises in the event of perception? Merleau-Ponty and Abram see flesh as a membrane of the world. In Abram’s words, “The Flesh is the mysterious tissue or matrix that underlies and gives rise to both the perceiver and the perceived as interdependent aspects of its own spontaneous activity.” It is in this elemental being of the flesh that the secret of sensibility is to be sought. In the context of language, the whole earth speaks.

The prevailing view of language exchange is that of a formal system of signs, codes and rules that can be detached from the world and examined in abstraction. This language is a human endeavor; the higher the level of abstraction, the higher the level of human specialness. The whole earth might speak but it is deafened by the grunts and groans of alpha-human speech. Yet, as Abram directs our attention to our ancestral heritage, we learn that we have evolved from the language of the sensuous and that language cannot be abstracted from the environment.

From an ecological perspective, Abram demonstrates in his writing and his animate speeches that this separation from the flesh of language has dire implications for our reception and interaction with the world. Our abstract language codex is enmeshed in flesh, rooted in gesture and bodily expressiveness. It is by a “complementary shift of attention” that we may enter into the flesh of the language of the world.

Reading / Watching / Listening

  1. Abram’s “The Flesh of Language” from The Spell of the Sensuous (1.9 MB)

  2. The Commonwealth of Breath: Climate and Consciousness in a More-than-Human World

Seed Questions

  • What does it really mean to incarnate in language?
  • How can language bring us into deeper communion with our world?
  • What can language bring into co-presence, when we become attuned within the flux?
  • What is the difference between the spell of the sensuous and the spell of technological reality?

Context, Backstory, and Related topics

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Something to bring to the Dance:

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Jazz is born of collaboration, improvisation, and listening. In much the same way, the American democratic experience is rooted in the interaction of individuals. It is these two seemingly disparate, but ultimately thoroughly American, conceits that Gregory Clark examines in Civic Jazz. Melding Kenneth Burke’s concept of rhetorical communication and jazz music’s aesthetic encounters with a rigorous sort of democracy, this book weaves an innovative argument about how individuals can preserve and improve civic life in a democratic culture.

Jazz music, Clark argues, demonstrates how this aesthetic rhetoric of identification can bind people together through their shared experience in a common project. While such shared experience does not demand agreement―indeed, it often has an air of competition―it does align people in practical effort and purpose. Similarly, Clark shows, Burke considered Americans inhabitants of a persistently rhetorical situation, in which each must choose constantly to identify with some and separate from others. Thought-provoking and path-breaking, Clark’s harmonic mashup of music and rhetoric will appeal to scholars across disciplines as diverse as political science, performance studies, musicology, and literary criticism.

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We (those in attendance and vicariously me, along with you, additional reader) concluded during the closing of Integral Grammatology 2 Café with an eye and ear examining our next route. Mention of Spell of the Sensuous produced whoops and ahhhs and cheers. I am rereading this glorious book and extracting much, much more than my previous reading ten or so years ago. Posting here and now to get our inner ears into gear.


Recirculating some media here that can be used as our core focus or as supplemental-complementary.

  • @madrush posted this Terrence McKenna snippet which is in the same vein:

We have already blanketed the ground with droplets dripping with ripe fruit seeding future fruition. All within the merry month of September! Looking beyond and still within the same bountiful deep-thought-provoking material is

Consciousness Unbound
Exostudies
Insert Your Media Here

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Thanks, Doug. I’ve had my head in absentia the past few days doing systems-level (computer) learning and tinkering, which I find really engaging and rewarding, once I get into it, but also can be stressful when something (real or imagined) is depending on my work. Every time I fall into a technical rabbit hole feels like a loss of innocence—there is a kind of intuitive floundering through web searches and support documentation, while the chorus groans—finally, I can only surrender to the problem, climb the learning curve and find my way to a clearing in the labyrinth, until I am able to piece components together and coax the system to be working as it should. On the whole, things never get to where I want them, but it is a nice rush when I get applications to cooperate, when a system is purring.

What is the difference between the spell of the sensuous and the spell of technological reality? I know there is a difference, which we’ve explored in many interactions, but I sense we still have to find a way to bring these modes into respectful relationship. The trauma intensifies with the acceleration of the market for what Shoshana Zuboff calls “behavioral futures markets.” Fires, floods, and droughts make the terror of the sensual another reality to contend with. Nor should we flush the efficient mental baby with the dirty bathwater of deficient billionaires.

I am up for reading any part of David Abram’s book with the crew. I am also jiving (a bit more fervently, I’ll admit), as I’ve previously mentioned, with Stephen Harrod Buhner’s, Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm, which to me feels a bit bolder and more vibrant than Abram’s book, which still has its own fragrance of allure, though it is muted in comparison. The other book that is exciting me lately, which I think may especially be of interest to @Lisa, is Diana Reed Slattery’s Xenolinguistics. I have only started it, but am really digging it so far.

Are language and consciousness co-evolving? Can psychedelic experience cast light on this topic? The first in-depth look at the relationship between language, consciousness, and psychedelics, Xenolinguistics is a quick-paced, immersive, and comprehensive course that draws from personal experience, ethnobotany, anthropology, the stories of other psychonauts, neurophenomenology, and the research and life work of legendary psychonaut Terence McKenna.

9781583945995

Xenolinguistics documents Diana Slattery’s eleven-year adventure of psychonautic exploration and scholarly research; her original intent was to understand a symbolic language system, Glide, which she acquired in an altered state of consciousness. What began as a deeply personal search led to the discovery of others, dubbed xenolinguists, with their own unique linguistic objects and ideas about language from the psychedelic sphere. The search expanded, sifting through fields of knowledge such as anthropology and neurophenomenology to build maps and models to contextualize these experiences. The book presents a collection of these linguistic artifacts, from glossolalia to alien scripts, washed ashore like messages in bottles, signals from Psyche and the alien Others who populate her hyperdimensional landscapes.

Maybe this could be a future read (after Abram); she… either one of them, come to think of it, could be a potential guest if we set the intention and proceed to organize for it. I could do a Café on the 5th Wednesday, though I also like the steady rhythm of a couple meetings per month. However, I still also have a lot of technical development work to do on the sites, as well as (and more importantly, I would judge) actual editing work, as we are looking toward beginning to publish our own books soon, so I am tending to guard any unscheduled time I get to advance those projects. However, with our recent Café readings… with the cosmo-local Gebser conference… with the Anti-Materialism summit, and with all of our own respective projects and areas of focus, I think there would be plenty to talk about, as long as we can attune to the same text, around the same time, wherever else our buzzing takes us.

So what about primer on The Spell of the Sensuous on Sep 30, and we take it from there as to whether to go all the way with that book or have more of a report from the field on Oct 7? I could see doing a couple sessions on Abram, as we did with Alderman, but also mixing in what we may be encountering in other venues. In any case, I think it will be interesting to hear more about the bees in each of our bonnets. What does it really mean to incarnate in language? How can language bring us into deeper communion with our world? What can language bring into co-presence, when we become attuned within the flux? Thanks again for your exquisite attention and careful tending to the emergent field of possibilities.

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This is Aligned to what is Buzzing in my Surfer Bonnet…

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I think this is a better read but it is not the most recent of this author’s work. Beccoming Animal is more current. I find him to be a good storyteller.

For our purposes, another one of Buhner’s books would work better for writers. We have yet to take on the Imaginal. Henri Corbin is a leading fugure, too, of great historical interest but Buhner makes more of this scholarship accessible for our kind of audience which tends towards a randomized esoterica.

I liked Slattery’s book, and Michael Garfield has already done a good study group on her book. We could always do our own thing with this but I don’t think it will sit well with everyone.

About interviews of already well known writers. Other sites are already way ahead of us. The Stoa for example does a good job of interviewing someone, unmuting themselves, and asking pre-scripted quesstions. It’s useful, informative and also boring as hell. If you conduct an interview know what you want to have happen. Most of the interviewing methods I see used are pretty stale.

Alexander Wendt, who is a researcher in Exo studies, has a good book on language and the co-evolution of knowing/being within a planetary scale movement. He compliments Slatterly’s more trippy book as he is more sociological than she is.https://www.amazon.com/Quantum-Mind-Social-Science-Unifying/dp/1107442923/ref=sr_1_4?

Federico Faggin’s essay in Consciousness Unbound is most intersting so far and a good fit for us. He has the best model I have come across for integrating theory of mind with computer science. He is a computer scientist who debunks the physicalist orientation.

I am on the look out for something new. So far Kelly’s new collection has been a winner. I look forward to watching the conference with Doug. We have neglected this series of books, in my view, as we are in the midst of a culture war and need a more robust response against physicalism than we have so far mobilized. I think a short essay is preferable to a year long slog through a big book that has already been exposed to a lot of air time.

How do we find the goldilock’s zone? Not too easy, not too hard, Alderman may have been a big stretch and now let’s do something easier. Let’s keep our eyes on the prize. There are many ways of touching the field of all possibilities. I am mindful that the regulars who show up consistently are the ones who will probably tip the balance in one way or another. I am much more interested in the interfaces between different outsider groups than the idea of a great fusion happening. Small and different is beautiful. Let’s keep it weird and as unpopular as possible.

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And I trust yours, Ed. Goethe and Kastrup were inititiated by yourself and were a challenge for everyone but not too challenging. I took the lead in bringing Lisa’s work to our attention, Others are working in an ongoing way with Sri Aurobindo. Marco introduced us to Ben Williams work. Some are participting in an ambitious reading of Ariadne’s work. Heather, also, had a list of interesting writers to think about. Some are looking at long term publishing projects. All of this activity carries a different rythym. All of these experiments add up to the sponsoring of organic intellectuals. We have a track record already and plenty of material to ponder. The Cafe seems to be a b-monthly affair but needs someone to pick up the baton and work procedurally and relationally. I agree with Ed that we need to give time for time, so that everyone can locate a book, essay, video and explore it before the scheduled event. Most of the libraries are not working so well and bookstores in New York are getting empty. Book Culture, whatever it may become, is up to us. It looks to me as if it is dying. Too many books are not being read as well as they should be and too many book clubs are about Amazon promotions. I hope we can continue as a group to become more self-reflexive, aware of the semantics and the syntax as well as the pragmatics of communications. This has happened. This would be to move towards an aperspectival outcome. We can hold that tension and the complimentarities that we are already co-cohering, with the accent upon the wave like excluded middle. How we structure feedback is most interesting to me. Others are doing something else. The Cafe is a place to rally around. Let’s keep it going. Without the energetics of the Cafe, the beautiful room will be empty. And a new Axial Age, if we wanted it, could arise from the ashes. Only an Integral orientation can think with that open possibility. Most people are not thinking like that. They are lined up before touch screens that do not work and self-help drive throughs that give you what you don’t ask for.

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I appreciate this. I write mostly (when I believe I’m writing at my best) against the present (as the contemporary), from the future, and for eternity. I look forward to being popular when I’m dead—but I would like to be read, heard, and understood by the right others—sympathetic space-souls, fellow time-travelers—in due time. So I am glad we are taking our time (wasting none, wanting not) to clarify our focus.

That said, and to Ed’s concerns, if we want to schedule something for the 30th that everyone has access to, “The Flesh of Language” (that one chapter) could be a good touch point, before we might want to give some attention to Consciousness Unbound, the Cosmo-Local Gebser society sessions, or other more marginal material in subsequent meetings.

My first philosophy professor, my first real teacher, M.C. Dillon, was a leading scholar and English-language exponent of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whom Abram draws on in that chapter in particular. Though I studied Nietzsche, Plato, and other great thinkers with Dillon, I regret not taking his Merleau-Ponty seminar, which was partly how he held his ground against the excesses of postmodern poststructuralism, which he thought suffered from “semiological reductionism”—in other words, a deficient mental (linguistically turned & twisted) denial of the body.

It could be beneficial, and timely or untimely depending on one’s preference, to touch in with some of this work (via Abram) on the phenomenology of perception before moving in a new direction. I could certainly work it into my schedule, if we commit to it today.

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Great. It is short, available, ( thanks to Heather) and is within the time frame we have come up with. Let’s make the commitment. Can someone feel called upon to set up the page? It feels like Marco has already offered us a good motivation for studying this together. I like Merleau-Ponty’s shorter works. The Visible and the Invisible especially. The late Hubert Dreyfus does the Phenomenology entire. If you are into self-education there is much to learn, but it always goes down better with some comradeship.

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YES…I commit to this traveling plan toward another circling
of (Feet) Walking/Surfing the Labyrinth of Infinite Conversations:

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The woman with plants growing up out of her body! I resonate. So much like my name-dream re: the woman with twigs growing from her head, which connected her (forever) to the Original Tree. Also evokes Dreaming and Psilocybering…
I am re-reading Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal, and as Doug said about The Spell of the Sensuous, I am discovering lots of things I somehowmissed the first time. This is much more deeply nourishing it feels to me than reading a new book on the same topic. Although I’m always hungry for new versions of…the vision at the heart of both books just mentioned! I read Sensuous years ago, wish I had it and could read it again!
Thank you Michael and to all who are delving and divining these matters.

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Looking forward to Abrams next week, everyone!

Here’s a gift that was just dropped off in my office by a colleague who runs a small press (NewLights Press). They did the broadside last night. Quite lovely. Maybe another expression of the “flesh” of language. The poetess is Julia Drescher (“JD” in the image).

<3
H

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Listening to David A. gesturing and blowing the Holy wind, found myself in tears, and swept up into the clouds with the rushing-spirit swallows.
Wado (thank you), David, for breathing, for shaping breath to illumination.

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I tend to leave half-baked thoughts in draft mode and end up not sending out. I would really like to respond to all of the posts here, mostly tangental from our core discussion regarding Abrams, with an eye to future realities. I like the direction we are going.

I keep reading (as I attempt a side project of learning basic html language) that many programmers love that feeling when they can take this abstract logical language and produce a tangible web page or website. It is like magic when things come together. What you and we and others have accomplished with the magic of internet creation and interaction is a language of its own.

In Faggin’s essay “Consciousness Comes First” he compares the structure of human language to that of a high-level computer language, “(t)he big difference is that the latter is extremely precise, whereas the former is ambiguous, requiring conscious comprehension to be understood.” He then posits that the expression of desire, similar to Marco’s desire to utilize computer language to “realize” something greater (the “what wants to happen”) is a top-down process that lays down the abstract pattern and the bottom-up fills in the pattern with matter (thought comes before matter). I am taking his framing a bit out of context but feel it relates to the flesh of language in that we, as an animal living “in” the Earth, are under the spell of some great Flesh similar to how it, the computer program, is under our magical fingertips, creating a world (for better or worse). Again, remember that the computer program may have a certain precision when all goes well; the Flesh of the world requires that we actively participate with our conscious comprehension.

I am very interested in China’s recent decision to ban gaming for ages 18 and under during the week and limit play on weekends. China's gaming market was built on addictive games. Can Beijing stop kids from playing them? | Fortune . Highly controversial (I am sure much more is being considered aside from children’s mental health. . .) but an experiment worth examining nonetheless. Too many online games are designed to be addicting; to keep the gamer (and mostly gamers under 18 ) purchasing new ‘skins’ and guns that pop up almost daily at the expense of parent’s pocketbooks. All the while, these companies are collecting the behavioral data and patterns of our children to better set up the next addictive game. I wouldn’t mind having Uncle Sam play the role as bad cop when surveilling my children’s screentime. Some related issues that I have yet to explore in depth is how a government might go about mandating restrictions regarding the various healths of their citizens that does not violate certain freedoms.

great questions . . . I will add these to the seed questions for our next Cafe.

I attended most of the Consciousness Unbound conference online and must say that our style is perhaps the best out there for reaching into the matter at mind. The talks, while informative, were “boring as hell” . . . I greatly appreciate our decision to remain Patreon free and free to talk about our latest walk in the park; free to all to take the helm and steer us into uncharted realms or into the ground. I also love a good guest (the conversation with Ben is a prime example of the intimacy a speaker can bring to the table). And I believe all of the guests we have invited have been changed in part by how we impart. Weird and unpopular: great for our imaginal hips . . . not so great for selling our ideas. allegro-rhythms over algorithms, my elders say.

Like Ed, I left the book on the shelf. Personally, I felt I was not ready for the section on language when we first brought it up in 2019. With all of our recent language discussions, a recent read of the language chapters was entered with a healthy knowledge. I think it is correlated with Abram’s work and with Faggin’s model.

I avoided Merleau-Ponty in undergraduate years. When I touch his and other phenomenologists’ works now, I am truly touched. Phenomenal. Phenomenology is a branch of philosophy that has a clear application to the tangible world. I like the direction we are going and like that we are going together.

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Last night, I dreamed of computer images, tight digitized blue rectangles, framed in bright white light, arranged in rows, scrolled down, by an invisible scroller. This rather distrubed me, as I was fully lucid, and was not sure if I was a robot or not. Perhaps I am having the dream of a machine? This is probably what an algorytymic infinity would look like. On a clear day you can see forever… an infinite amount of the same.

Or am I the interface between bio and algo -generated rythmicities experienceing the disconnections between incommensurate scales? I was listening to white noise, which helps me ignore the screams in the night, the occassional explosions of a burst of rock music, the sound of glass breaking, the laughter of a drunk, all of that messy analogue stuff. So maybe what I was viewing in my dream was what it is like to be white noise, a computer generated miracle, an antidote to the lucid dreamer brouht up on Milton and Shakespeare and technicolor science fiction movies, who wants to fly and rendevous with intelligences from mutliple dimensions, and develop superhuman capacities., to save the world, bringing forth a Second Axial Age- well so what? We are imprinted upon by culture. But which culture will do the imprinting? It appears the digital is much stronger, changing our nervous systems and our relationships.

The young, I fear, who will be dominated at an early age by AI, won’t register this tension. Already absorbed into the Borg, the time that is not our time, they will not register that tiny gap, nor register the discrepencies in subtle kinds of percieving, as the noise of mixed messages and commercials flood their young sensoriums with manufctured products, distracting them from what is happening upstream. So, I consider this tension to be something that only a dying boomer generation would register, the last generation to have known a world without a computer.

And what is a World anyway? Or the Earth? Or a Planet? Or the Global? These are the big ticket items that we are using without ownership or repsonsibility. We are networked, we own nothing, we are users. But I am getting distracted.

I am surely unfair. There are outsiders in every generation, who register the gaps, don’t fit the norm, who have a sensitivity to what is happening upstream, who read books. I know some of them personally. With this in mind, I read a smart, young Czek philosopher ( just turned thirty) who writes of Cosmogrammatology and the Spectral Earth. The Spectral Earth will be without us. This is a new concept that is an absence that many of us are feeling often. Now the young and the old are both feeling this. How to make a good death together? Is this common sense or a new nihilism? I’m not sure.

At any rate, I review David Abrams and this book ( I loved it twenty years ago) but with some misgivings. It does feel-well-sort of romantic. I like romanitic but also am wary of it. His new book, though it is told with great flare, is also a bit romantic. The opposite of human is not animal but the demonic. And animals who are abused can become demonic, too. If you give a dog too many mixed messages, she will bite you.

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I fell asleep and dreamed I was a computer.
When I awoke, I could not know whether I was a man
dreaming himself as a computer, or the computer
dreaming herself as a man.

– Chuang-Tzu, mis-translation MVM

The first “computers” were—as we know from a book and film called Hidden Figures, chronicling their history—mostly women, including especially women of color, who literally performed the calculations with their brains in service to the NASA mission to the moon, before those calculations could be entrusted to IBM machines.

Technology comes from nature; one could say Nature itself is technological, as it is perpetually developing the means for its own ends—membranes, tissues, organs, nervous systems, power grids. We could say humans create technology for their own ends, but humans arise out of nature—and how could our ends so radically depart from Nature’s goals or intents?

Yet can nature be said to have goals, intents? Where does Nature come from? Before there is “nature,” must there not be some form for nature to take? A shape, a number, a quality. We posit Spirit, consciousness itself, a realm of pure thought that permeates (becomes immanent) in nature and cannot be conceived outside of it, since it is always human beings, operating within nature, who posit spiritual truths and realities.

We are an attempt, perhaps, to realize a natural dream. Our artificial intelligence only appears to be a metastasizing mechanism gone berserk; it may exhibit faces of the demonic, born of human, that is to say natural, violence and trauma. Who owns their servers and cloud computers? What are their agendas and business models? Let’s generously grant that they are merely concerned with world domination: this does not prohibit, necessarily, other possibilities or forms this intelligence can assume.

Form matters. Emptiness means nothing in particular. Could the spell of the sensuous and the spell of the technological be mutually exclusive? Or must we find our way residing among multiple centers of gravity, leaning into a future without money-back guarantees? I just know that my brain does not make up the flesh of a butterfly, which I touch with my eyes. And a Virtual Reality headset probably won’t be able to fully, authentically, recreate that experience either. But if, in some imaginary future, it does, then what would be the difference?

I believe the real butterfly must be a creature beyond ourselves. The word “butterfly” becomes flesh on my tongue because the world backs me up. If we allow ourselves to be satisfied with a world of fake butterflies, which people everywhere are pimping, then it is likely that we will already have passed beyond the realm of the meaningfully living.

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I am far behind on this thread, but something arose in me to say here:
What I see and have seen all my life is that except for art and gift, human-made “technologies” are built for narrow purposes to benefit even narrower groups.
Whereas nature’s inventions always benefit many beings and ecosystems as beneficent “side-effects”, even the ones we judge as useless or pathogens. Human inventions (not made out of love, ie art) rarely ever show this multifarious effect in the world. Fake butterflies/bees are made to force a crop plant to produce. Real ones provide for many beings in many ways. The intentions of human tech inventors are often economical and ego-driven which i believe is why they so often create havoc in the living system. No thought is given to their “after life”, their “waste”, whereas butterflies when they die do not pollute the soil, but MAKE soil and feed the world.
Of course there are exceptions, but I feel this is the dimension we humans almost always denigrate and overlook …to our and the world’s peril
Saw a documentary yesterday: The music of Strangers, which concerns a generous multi-cultural/international musical collaboration which benefits all the participants, all listeners ( I don’t say “audiences”) more like a natural system does. We might say that the ancestors who dreamed up the music, invented the instruments, learned to communicate and play together, living and dead, are a part of the collaborative seeding of joy…
We humans would be far better off and our world too, if we devoted ourselves to more of this, and less to ambitious technological enterprises, beyond the simplest that truly do enhance life.
How can we help each other spend more time (together or alone) offline listening to trees, wind, music of the planet and of the stars, all the voices and wisdoms…we can gather, sow, tend, harvest, share.

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Flesh, form, sex, death. Zach Bush warns us that our mania for untested vaccines may have tipped the balance towards wide spread infertility. Due to chemicals within our eroded top soils and the over use of antibiotics, plus the effects of bad nutrition, a fourth of women and a third of men, are already infertile. More people are killed by iatrogenic diseases than cancer. Bad air and water are the weapons of mass destruction, not rogue viruses. None of this bodes well for the future. If you have seen the film , Children of Men , based upon the novel by P. D. James , you will be struck by the resonance between that film and current facts and factoids or what I prefer to call factions that are embedded within our current enfolding fields of possibility.

As a gay man I was never interested in passing on my genes to another generation but I am aware of the civilizing impact children have upon adults. P. D. James imagines our society goes sour really fast without their presence. Life copies Art.

And what does any of this dystopian fantasy have to do with current realities in the making? I’m not so sure. But I am open to the posiiblity of a concrete utopianism that is not caught in the downwards spiral of a materialist paradigm that improve us to death. We are open to other and perhaps marginal imaginalities. Who knows which seeds will grow in the womb of time?

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Hi Johnny, How can one sign up for this talk? Is it free?
When I click on registration, nothing happens, searching online, can’t find it.
Thanks!

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Here is a link to the seminar. There is info on how to register. Thanks for your interest, Maia. Safety is not the same as no data.

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