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Monthly Archives: June 2008

links for june 08

Quote #223

From Broken Koans and other Zen debris

One afternoon a student said “Roshi, I don’t really understand what’s going on. I mean, we sit in zazen and we gassho to each other and everything, and Felicia got enlightened when the bottom fell out of her water-bucket, and Todd got enlightened when you popped him one with your staff, and people work on koans and get enlightened, but I’ve been doing this for two years now, and the koans don’t make any sense, and I don’t feel enlightened at all! Can you just tell me what’s going on?”

“Well you see,” Roshi replied, “for most people, and especially for most educated people like you and I, what we perceive and experience is heavily mediated, through language and concepts that are deeply ingrained in our ways of thinking and feeling. Our objective here is to induce in ourselves and in each other a psychological state that involves the unmediated experience of the world, because we believe that that state has certain desirable properties. It’s impossible in general to reach that state through any particular form or method, since forms and methods are themselves examples of the mediators that we are trying to avoid. So we employ a variety of ad hoc means, some linguistic like koans and some non-linguistic like zazen, in hopes that for any given student one or more of our methods will, in whatever way, engender the condition of non-mediated experience that is our goal. And since even thinking in terms of mediators and goals tends to reinforce our undesirable dependency on concepts, we actively discourage exactly this kind of analytical discourse.”

And the student was enlightened.

Orality and academia

Academia is a quintessentially literate culture. Studying is reading, the outputs of research are papers and books. Your are judged on your ability to express yourself in writing, and when you do this you must reference the written works of others. This is what defines scholarship. More than this, the habits of thought are patterned by literacy. Literate thought is analytic, dissective. The business of science is that of ordering into lists, breaking into parts, assigning subordinate and superordinate.

And yet there is also a non-literate part to being an academic, a part closely alighted with the praxis of the discipline. This is giving lectures, discussing in seminars, attending conferences. The paper outputs of academia can disguise this component, but it is essential.

In a high-education system dominated by production-line and consumption values, by a receptacle-model of education (students as containers, education as a substance) it is easy to denigrate the ‘live’ oral component of academia, but in doing so we deny students contact with an essential part of scholarly life. Additionally we deny ourselves a cognitive model which can augment literate thinnking.

Walter Ong (Orality and Literature, 1982/2002) has written convincingly about the psychological dynamics of oral vs literate culture. Literate culture encourages finished works, whereas the knowledge of oral cultures is always live, an act of telling rather than knowing. As such it is part of a commons, rather than copyrighted (and plagarised). Oral knowledge is situational, empathetic and participatory, rather than abstracted and objectively distanced, it is contested rather than autonomous and tends towards holism rather than the progressive analytic deconstruction of literate thought. Oral thought is thematic compared to literate thought’s ability to dictate strict chronologies and linear narratives / list structures (just think of the memory constraints on oral culture which lacks written aids to see why pure abstract lists are impossible).

It is clear that academia needs to take elements from both of sides of these distinctions. Oral cognition can be impressionistic rather than precise, conservative rather than innovative and amnesic rather the hypermnemonic. Nonetheless the lived aspects of oral thought are a vital part of disciplinary practice and exposure to them is essential if students are to get a true view of their subjects.

A similar thing is argued by Kevin McCarron, a English literature lecturer and part-time stand-up comedian who argues for the imporance of improvisation in teaching. He says that an overreliance on preparation (the script or text of the class) as getting in the way of the (living) interaction of student and teacher:

(article in the Times Higher Education)


“If we don’t put ourselves under pressure, nothing interesting or exciting is going to happen. How could it? In fact, what we’ve done is spent three hours the previous night making sure that it doesn’t happen.

“Then we have the gall to offer these hours of preparation as morally sound. Self-protection is being offered to the world as a moral value. That preparation has been done to protect the teacher from the students. Teachers spend hours and hours preparing because they are terrified of bring caught out.”

apostrophe creep

Apostrophe’s insert themselves in my writing at inappropriate places. I know the rules of their use, I promise (for possessives, not plurals. Permissible to indicate omission, etc) but they just seem to come out. My explicit knowledge isn’t enough to make my procedural knowledge, as expressed through the faster-than-deliberate-thought action of typing, obey. I hypothesise that although my deliberative consciousness has learn the rules of apostrophe use, which are defined at the syntactic and semantic level, my procedural motor system is more vulnerable to low-level statistical features of writing — such as that apostrophes often come immediately before an ‘s’ at the end of the word. Presumably some words have a sequence of letters which trigger my ‘end of word’ pattern (for example the stem ‘apostophe’, which ends, like many words, in an e) and when I go to add an ‘s’ the ‘use apostrophe’ pattern is also, although in appropriately, triggered. This is galling because I hate reading writing with inappropriately placed apostrophes, but I also find it interesting. What is interesting is that typing, like speaking, is a complex action which is overlearnt, but flexible, which is in obeyance of conscious goals, but which the bulk of the details of enactions are unconscious. This unconscious realm isn’t merely motor, not just how I type or speak the words, but it reaches up to include what words I type or say, even what precise meanings I come out with. Hence the phrase “How can I know what I think until I see what I say”.

Chimpanzee Dentistry


From McGrew, W. C., & Tutin, C. E. (1972). Chimpanzee dentistry. J Am Dent Assoc, 85(6), 1198-204. cited in Moerman, D. E. (2002). Meaning, medicine, and the ‘placebo effect’. Cambridge University Press: New York.

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