A non-sequitur catalogue of current concerns

Juneteenth, storms of memory and history, mind's eye blindness, and circulation amok


Around sundown at a neighbor’s low-key solstice party, the talk turned to Juneteenth. All of us were white. Over strawberry shortcake, someone offered a thought, encouraged us all to reflect on the new holiday. We complained about Texas; we expressed gratitude for living in Massachusetts. Mostly, though, it was our silence, our reticence, that really stood out.

To be sure, I was among the silent. I thought about how much of my life I’ve spent in ignorance of the enormity of racial injustice in America, and how much that aporia unsettles me today. I spoke up briefly to say that “even in Massachusetts,” we have a long way to go. Even in Massachusetts. Matthew, please. Beyond this I only demurred, turned inward.

There were no black families with school-age children in Petersburg, Illinois, where I grew up in the 70s and 80s. When I was in middle school, a new pastor came to our Methodist Church, and his family had an adopted teenage daughter who was black; but she was several years older than me, across the gulf of adolescence, and I knew her very little. Later, in my eighth-grade year, maybe, a boy my age came to live with his white grandmother on the upper edge of town.

My friends and I walked home from school along the upper edge of town most days—a slow ramble where, freed from the red-in-tooth anxieties of junior high, we walked the railroad right of way, detoured through the timber, and dilly-dallied under the cover of the tulip trees, the vista of the river valley and the town laid out below. The new kid fell in with our group, sitting with us at lunch, and joining us on these walks home. I remember his grandmother, with her curly white hair, seeming very kind, very patient, and very alone, on her porch of planks at the edge of the timber. And then, one day, the boy was gone. I don’t know what became of him, and I don’t remember his name.

The only black kids I knew while growing up in Petersburg, I realize, had been brought there by white people.

I should add, here, that Abraham Lincoln was first elected to public office from the place that became Petersburg. There were historical markers around town memorializing where Lincoln had walked and spoken, and we took pride in the heritage of the Emancipator. I don’t know if Petersburg ever was one of Illinois’ “sundown towns,” as discussed in powerful reporting Logan Jaffe did for Pro Publica in 2019. But then, all of America is a sundown town—our history mired in twilight light, raked with obscuring shadows. I know that, in the the 80s, we didn’t think of our town as segregated; we didn’t think ourselves racist. I’m unsettled to think how thoroughly racism relieved us of the work of noticing this; how thoroughly racism took care of the work of being racist. And most importantly, how long I’ve looked through these things without really seeing, without resolving images of them in my mind.

The brain as a storm of stories

I’m grateful for a recent piece by Christopher Comer and Ashley Taggart in Nautilus on the prescient brain-science theorizing of the literary critic I. A. Richards, one of the founding figures of the school of literary scholarship that came to be called The New Criticism.

Principles of Literary Criticism, the book where Richards expounds his theory of memory and cognition, appeared in 1924. Lately I’ve been fascinated with the science of memory in that era, which attracted not only Richards, but thinkers like Bertrand Russell as well. Impelled by imaging of neurons pioneered by Camillo Golgi and Santiago Ramón y Cajal—bitter enemies who shared the 1906 Nobel Prize—workers in emerging brain science were seeking traces of the so-called “engram”: the physical, localized trace of a memory in the brain.

Richards’ skepticism about the existence of the engram was pronounced; and his speculation on how memory might work without such localization—without any record or archive at all—remains compelling today. “Imagine an energy system of prodigious complexity and extreme delicacy of organisation,” Richards proposes, “which has an indefinitely large number of stable poises…

Imagine it thrown from one poise to another with great facility, each poise being the resultant of all the energies of the system. Suppose now that the partial return of a situation which has formerly caused it to assume a stable poise, throws it into an unstable condition from which it most easily returns to equilibrium by reassuming the former poise. Such a system would exhibit the phenomena of memory; but it would keep no records though appearing to do so (Richards, PLC 104).

I’m beguiled by Richards’ vision of the brain as a storm of stories, a set of stable poises—less an archive than a choreography.

Mind blindness

I was thrown by a loop by Carl Zimmer’s recent Times piece on the cognitive question of the “Mind’s Eye,” or the conscious experience of visual imagination—and the lack of it, which neurologists have come to call “aphantasia.” Zimmer has been reporting on aphantasia research for a decade now, but I’m only just connecting with the concept—which troubles me. Reading Zimmer’s piece, I realized that I experience aphantasia myself. When I call an image to mind, I don’t see anything. At. All. To imagine a familiar face or room, for me, is much like drawing a picture in the dark, or navigating my bedroom at night with the lights off. Although now, it strikes me that even these analogies might not be entirely accurate for folks with strong visual imaginaries. All my life I assumed, when people talked about seeing something in the mind’s eye, that they were speaking euphemistically. Like me.

Richards was onto aphantasia, too; his chapter on memory in Principles of Literary Criticism ends with the question of memory and imagination across the senses:

There is no kind of mental activity in which memory does not intervene. We are most familiar with it in the case of images, those fugitive elusive copies of sensations with which psychology has been hitherto so much, perhaps too much, concerned. Visual images are the best known of them, but it is important to recognise that every kind of sensation may have its corresponding image. Visceral, kinæsthetic, thermal images can with a little practice be produced, even by people who have never noticed their occurrence. But individual differences as regards imagery are enormous, more in the degree to which images become conscious, however, than in their actual presence or absence on the needful occasion. Those people who, by their own report, are devoid of images, none the less behave in a way which makes it certain that the same processes are at work in them as in producers of the most flamboyant images.

Zimmer’s reporting agrees with Richards’ last point: those of us with aphantasia are able to describe imaginary visual scenes with great specificity, elaborating colors and textures, judging how a loved one might look with a new suit of clothes or a mustache. We just don’t see these things in a conscious way—though it would seem the imagery is being processed somewhere beyond conscious access. I do dream with images, in colors, which often are quite vivid. Often, in a state of reverie, images will come spontaneously into my mind. But I have no conscious capacity to invoke or assemble them. I realize now, with gratitude, that words have been my proxy here—liquid and fiery words, earthy and ethereal words, which I’ve used to pattern the stormy darkness inside my eyelids. I think that cosmically, the province of language is small—but then, so is the domain of the visual spectrum. Small, but portable; we take them everywhere we go.

AMOC and us amok

Finally, I’ve been thinking a lot about the South Atlantic. It came to mind for me when reading this piece about climate tipping points, which appeared on Grist in May. One of the seven tipping points (identified by a group of climate-adjacent researchers in a 2019 comment piece in Nature) is sticking with me in particular: the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, or AMOC, a network of ocean currents which regulates temperature and salinity, the best-known piece of which is the Gulf Stream. Nature’s tipping-point article focuses on circulation in the North Atlantic. But it’s crucial to note that the system connects to a network in the South, where currents driven by the upwelling of water are driven to the surface where the Southern Ocean interacts with the Antarctic landmass. This upwelling water has been circulating in southern deep-ocean basins, far below the surface, for a thousand years. It’s not only cold; it’s old, bearing the salinity and CO2 levels of of a millennium past. This makes it a powerful “sink” for absorbing both excess carbon dioxide and energy from the sun. It’s the thought of thousand-year old water, bearing the “engram” of past planetary conditions, that absorbs my attention, however: another one of those stable poises of the system, which I. A. Richards hypothesized in the brain, emergent at planetarity scale, the earth’s memory now confronting anthropogenic dementia.

I’ve been struck by how little the South Atlantic factors into northern, occidental Atlantic imaginary, much less in our critical considerations of planetary systems. Add our bias for the north and the west to our presumptions about the primacy of the primate Homo

And this last bit is a wild leap: what comes to mind, finally, is the recent reporting on observations of UFOs made by U.S. military pilots, a story which periodically has absorbed public attention over the last half century. The more I think about what an extraterrestrial visit might look like, the less convinced I am that it explains these prodigies—these spinning strobes and floaters, which seem to defy our understanding of aeronautic engineering as they ricochet around the troposphere.

I think of our own extraplanetary explorations—like the Mars Ingenuity copter, so fragile in its gossamer raiment and its carbon-fiber bonnet of blades. With a few superficial exceptions, the probes we’ve sent into the void so far have mostly not been designed to communicate with creatures. Instead, they’ve been tooled to talk with chemical signatures, electromagnetic spectra, gradients of energy. Our science-fictional imaginings of alien visitation, meanwhile, are relentlessly parochial: down to the last page of pulp paper and the last frame of breathless b-roll documentary, SF mostly insists that the aliens would come to make contact with us. But why should we not expect such visitors, when they arrive, to be heartbreakingly fragile and tentative—seeking an audience not with us, but with the planet? I imagine a probe sinking into the sea to commune with the AMOC—who might tell them of the bipedal, terrestrial species that has run amok in the light above.

A place in the sun

In his astonishing, neglected classic, Storm (1941), George R. Stewart wonderfully prefigures the perspective of environmental history:

AS A CRAB moves on the ocean-bottom, but is of the water, so man rests his feet upon the earth—but lives in the air. Man thinks of the crab as a water-animal; illogically and curiously, he calls himself a creature of the land. As water environs the crab, so air surrounds, permeates, and vivifies the body of man.… As individual men move in a too well-known landscape without noticing its features, so man—fallaciously—takes for granted the all-pervasive air. His historians deal in lands and seas. But most movements of peoples have been not so much quests for better countries as for better atmospheric conditions. “A place in the sun” explains much of history more exactly than we usually realize, except that just as often we should say, “A place in the rain.” A thunderstorm in hay-time may overthrow a ministry, and a slight average rise or fall of temperature may topple a throne; a shift in the storm-track can ruin an empire. In the twentieth century a temporary variation of rainfall put Okies upon the highway by the hundred-thousand, just as in the third century a similar shift might in a single year hurl the Huns against the Chinese frontier and set the blue-painted Caledonians swarming at Hadrian's Wall. In the mass as in the individual, man is less a land-animal than a creature of the air.

Written before weather radar and satellite imagery, Storm is the biography of a cyclone that rises in the Western Pacific, gathers force as it steals over the unseen ocean, and makes landfall to change weather and change lives. Author Stewart is best remembered today as the author of The Earth Abides, a proto-Gaian postapocalyptic novel. But Storm, now, seems the surer harbinger of a climate-haunted future. New York Review Books is reissuing Storm; their paperback edition, with Introduction by Nathaniel Rich, is due out in August.