The Kekule Problem: Language and Consciousness

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  • 01 Jun 2017 at 7:31 pm #9509


    I missed that exchange! Yes, there may be a nuance. He does link the emergence of language with that of pictorial art. Pictorial art as the herald of language. Pictorial art was the first to show that one thing could be another. Language perfected this function in its naming of everything in the world. So why would the unconscious use pictorial art when it would presumably know that verbal language would be more efficient, like the left brain of the Homeric man knew in Julian Jaynes’s vision of the bicameral mind?

    I guess everything hinges on McCarthy’s insistence that all language can do is describe, and that through its descriptive power, language ends up containing the world. But clearly language has other functions than description. Manifestation, for example. Or performance. “I regretfully [manifestation] declare [performance] Donald and Melania man and wife.” Sometimes language not only describes an object, blasting it out of the shifting continuum of existence. Sometimes it manifests a subject–me, and your mother. Sometimes it performs something: sometimes it transforms a “Miss” into a “Mrs”; an “accused” into a “convicted.” Sometimes it does stuff in the world, just like the unconscious. Solving problems, inventing problems.

    But I think I agree with his premise that there is a difference between the unconscious and language. And I agree with what I think he thinks: that the unconscious and language overlap and interact, but not always harmoniously: remaining two distinctive systems, with different origins.

    02 Jun 2017 at 5:06 am #9510


    I’m assuming McCarthy’s distinction between autonomic and unconscious functions are the key to the plant question. Plants respond physiologically to numerous conditions – even as networks, as you point out – as does an animal. But it seems he’s referring to the unconscious here specifically with regard to its psychological function as opposed to its physiological function. Unconscious psychological function being an activity of the animal brain in which it may present symbols to itself, not only share signals others. The distinction must be technical or even semantic – whether plants have consciousness (or in this case have an unconscious). For my own part, with regard to the semantics, I often think of plants as “being consciousness” rather than “having” consciousness. It seems to me to be a matter of modes and degrees of consciousness and unconsciousness. Even with regard to signaling as a mode or barometer for detecting conscious and unconscious activity.

    The migration between what is considered conscious and unconscious though – or the overlapping and interaction between them that you mention – is really interesting. For example, McCarthy’s mention of the case of the dolphin whose breathing command must not be autonomic or else it would die. In humans there is migration between unconscious and conscious functions in activities as diverse as breathing and language, I’m assuming due to the non-localized network structure. Both breathing and language may migrate between autonomic, unconscious, and conscious functions. Even heart rate.

    This migratory capability seems parallel to the modulations that language is able to undergo: the difference, for example, between description, manifestation, and performance that you mention. In a way, these modes are still all descriptive modes. If I regretfully declare so-and-sow and so-and-sham wife and man, I am using those words to describe what I am doing, what is happening, as it is happening (and how I feel about it). In a way, quite reductively, the words are describing themselves in this case: what they are doing.

    But another modular difference that you raise is really interesting with regard to migratory capability: the difference between the pictorial, the descriptive, and the verbal; or the differences between the pictorial, the spoken word, and the written word.

    The written word WAR is a picture referring to the concept or occasion of war, yet when spoken may refer directly to the concept, or to the picture of the word (in turn referring to the concept), or to both at the same time. A pictorial representation of war might refer directly to the general concept of war without the interceding of language yet it might also refer to, and require, the word which represents the concept it is attempting to describe: Ah! I see! You’re trying to show me “war”! There’s a networked, triangulated convergence between different physiological functions with regard to the modes for attacking the conceptual representation: WAR.

    [A way to quickly experiment with it is to say a word over and over again. Physiologically the usage is abstracted until the picture itself becomes absurd, loses its familiarity, and becomes meaningless sound. Let it go and it slowly becomes picture again and settles back into its meaning. Perhaps unsurprisingly the parlor game works particularly well with something deeply familiar, like your mother’s name.]

    [The concept-word-symbol-sound AUM also comes to mind.]

    McCarthy seems to be saying that while these modes all must to have emerged in relative proximity to each other, and have rather quickly developed into their current state of networked co-referencing, the unconscious is more comfortable, and perhaps more likely to reach for the pictorial response, simply because it’s been around for a whole lot longer; and that the problem solving capacity this representation signifies is perfectly capable of functioning successfully, independent of its signifier. Likewise, written and spoken language as a two-mode symbiotic structure may also function as such an extra-biological apparatus that it takes on qualities of being quite independent, distinct, and in conflict with animal symbol-using unconscious/conscious field that certainly preceded it by a long-shot.

    And yet the symbiosis between modes is so interdependent – it calls to mind the lichen structure – that a profound co-emergence and integration must certainly have been in play, a network of unconscious and conscious physiology not so different from our currently ubiquitous sonic-picto-gram-conducting network.

    [In addition to the lichen analogy, the Return of Twin Peaks is a pretty radical demonstration of the triangulated symbiosis between the pictorial, the textual and the spoken as a time-based, holographic representation of the total unconscious/conscious language structure.]

    McCarthy seems to claim that language is wholly unnecessary to the problem solving capacities of the pre-language unconscious. Yet one wonders if the problem would have been introduced to the unconscious in the first place had not the language existed to present the problem. The unconscious might well supply the ouroboros as its ‘answer’ to a great deal of questions and cosmic problems, such as would be appropriate. The symbol itself just as likely represented the somatic feeling – or total experience – of Kekule’s crisis or profound impasse. It required the consciousness of Kekule to apply an interpretation of the pictorial symbol to his language-based problem.

    When it comes to problem-solving, without the use of advanced written language, one wonders if the ancient pacific mariners had sea charts of any kind, whether any were required at all. One wonders if the Serpent Mound builders, likewise, had engineering charts of any kind, of if they simply weren’t required. One thinks of the logic of Songlines. And of the honeybee’s perfect hexagon.

    If a language as complex and externally archivable as our own is perhaps not necessary for the implementing of these quite remarkably advanced endeavors, one also wonders what then is its underlying use, teleological or not? Regarding that question – and again with regard to the honeybee – this article, also at Nautilus, kind of melted my face off:

    That language may not really be for problem-solving at all, it has just been a pretty useful (problematic) bonus:

    “We are social animals. We evolved to be social animals. That means that individuals in a social species regulate each other’s nervous systems. Your brain is not only regulating your body budget; it’s also helping to regulate other people’s, and other people are helping to regulate you.

    In insects that are social, they primarily use chemicals to regulate each other. Termites, for example, are a social species, and they pretty much use olfaction and chemicals. Other mammals, like rats and rodents, use touch, and they also use hearing to regulate each other’s nervous systems. Primates, that are not human, also use vision. We use all of those sensory systems—and we also use words and concepts. I can sit here and talk to you. I can change what’s happening in your body just by merely speaking a few words. So emotion concepts, and concepts in general, evolved in part because we have to manage our relationships with each other; but as we’re doing that, we are constantly regulating each other’s nervous systems, for good or for ill.”

    What really seems to differentiate the pictorial from the spoken is not effectivity, or their mode of meaning, but their capability for transmission. Spoken language is transmittable, contagious. Radically more virally transmittable than the pictorial – until now when everything for us has just ‘evolved’ again. And the past year seems to have just about proven that the language-network is in no way clear way about problem-solving as much as it is about nervous system regulation. If regulation is that right word. Micro-trauma-inducing, global-wide nervous system regulation.

    • This reply was modified 3 weeks, 3 days ago by  Driftwood70.
    03 Jun 2017 at 12:23 pm #9513

    Richard L.

    All interesting, intelligent stuff.

    When dealing with specific cases, as laid out in THE COMMITTEE OF SLEEP and WRITERS DREAMING (if you want the authors names and the greater sub-titles, look back in this thread), it seems that there is a great variance in the capacity of different dreams and in one’s conscious ability to recall and interpret anything presented by the unconscious during sleep.

    As Clem says, the serpent with its tail in its mouth might just as well be a symbol that the man is going around in circles rather than a scientific insight. The whole thing might seem irrelevant to someone else.

    More to the point, if you read the other cases, especially in WRITERS DREAMING, the unconscious seems to deliver the answers in plain language. If you’ve been wracking your brain on the problem of resolving a novel, as McCarthy must have done and as many other authors say they do, you write down a request for your unconscious to resolve it during your sleep, and voila! the next morning it is there. Sue Grafton, among other authors, says she writes letters to her unconscious all the time, just this way.

    While I find the associated problems of language and consciousness deeply interesting, I don’t find the example of The Kekule Problem particularly interesting. There are those who say that the ideas were stolen and that dream thing was all made up. Either way, it doesn’t matter to you or me, although McCarthy has taken it to heart.

    What I would like to know is how McCarthy has used his unconscious to write his books. Rumor has it that he saw the four of cups in a dream. nailed to the wall of a house that is described in BLOOD MERIDIAN, and that he did not know the meaning of the four of cups until he looked it up. I’m not sure where I read that, but it might be that I dreamed it. Anyone know a published source for it (beyond my old blog)?

    03 Jun 2017 at 1:51 pm #9514


    Great stuff Driftwood and Richard,

    In the Oprah interview, doesn’t McCarthy quote Henry Miller’s “J’écoute” (i.e. “Okay, Unconscious, I’m listening; begin dictation”)? So he clearly has acknowledged that the unconscious is in play in his writing, helping him solve the problem of crafting a narrative, meditating on an idea, addressing a nation as a cultural authority, etc.

    William Burroughs says 90% of his images and narratives came from his dreams. He wrote a book about it called My Education.

    Why doesn’t McCarthy like talking about literature and his fellow novelists more? Maybe a more interesting case than Kekule is Robert Louis Stevenson, who speaks extensively of his business relationship with his unconscious, which he represents as a multiplicity of agents he calls the Brownies, whom he has trained to bring him dreams of serviceable and marketable images and narratives for his writing. Jekyll and Hyde hatched out of this process, as Stevenson claims I think in an essay on dreams.

    Driftwood, thanks for that link to the Feldman-Barrett article; those quotes are awesome. Maybe that global-wide nervous system regulation is the physiological complement of language’s power to contain the world by description. Language has power, is power, is the sign of power. It must surely effect the biological unconscious of the animal that has acquired it.

    McCarthy’s distinction between the 1.9 million year old biological unconscious and the 100,000 year old species-tool of making one thing another (the tool of semiotics, pictorial or linguistic, descriptive or otherwise) needs to make explicit what that unconscious was doing for the first 1.8 million years and what it came to be doing after the fatal event of the sign’s invention. How did it help solve math problems before the invention of signs?

    10 Jun 2017 at 9:39 pm #9551


    “Rumor has it that he saw the four of cups in a dream. nailed to the wall of a house that is described in BLOOD MERIDIAN, and that he did not know the meaning of the four of cups.”


    I don’t remember that story. Interesting. I do remember talking to a well-known McCarthy scholar at a conference in San Marcos and I think he said that he thought McCarthy had actually seen a 4 of Cups image on a wall in a house in Mexico during his research for Blood Meridian. Another theory I recall hearing is that McCarthy came across a reference to that image in some ancient Mexican manuscript and the scholar who told me this said he was hoping to find this passage in his own research.

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