Abundant Descent

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language machines, heart apes, and meat monkeys

Stone Ape #61: P. Coil and his Singing Cat [October 11, 2013]

I’ve been listening to the Stone Ape archive, in which Tom Barbalet and Heron Stone have been having a very wide-ranging conversation about Heron’s “Gendo” and Tom’s artificial life projects (among countless other topics) for several years. In their most recent podcast, they discuss a question I submitted. How do the stories we tell ourselves about reality interact with our emotions? They gave me much food for thought, as usual, which is why I religiously listen to their podcast.

Gendo, is ” a way of language” that Heron has developed based on his experiences since awakening from “the trance of language” when he was twenty-one. Most people, he claims, are utterly in thrall to the stories that run through our heads. He calls us, and himself, “language monkeys.” Heron has recorded hundreds of hours of conversations with various people in which he is attempting to help them escape from this situation. If you’re intrigued, a snippet is available on Youtube in which he discusses “the five stupidities of English.”

Language Machines (inner monologue, a “thinking” part)

Heron’s idea of “the language machine” has been well thought out. Focussing on getting clarity around language has been his obsession for decades. Basically, we can think of the language machine as the monologue in our own heads. As anyone who has ever attempted quiet meditation knows, the tape runs on ad nauseum, chattering away, unless you’ve practiced long and hard enough to turn it off. Unlike the Buddhist focus on quieting the “monkey mind,” Gendo aims to achieve a much more accessible goal: we must simply learn to dis-identify with the stories we are telling ourselves, and become aware of them as simply stories. Once we accept that they are nothing more than narratives being constructed about our experiences, we are free.

I am a big fan of this approach. It short-circuits decades of gruelling “practice.” I am not saying meditation is a waste of time, of course. Quieting the mind and just being present is incredibly valuable. Heron has maintained a meditative practise for twenty tears; he considers it essential. That said, if most folk have to wait until achieving a perfectly silent mind, before becoming “conscious,” we are in big trouble. We’ve got cascades of problems in the here and now, problems that – as Heron frequently asserts – “a bunch of unconscious language monkeys” will never solve.

Heart Apes (an emotional part)

Supportive as I am of Heron’s project, I have questions, mostly based on my own experiences of escaping the language machine’s authoritarianism.* We are not, I would assert, just dealing with our own inner narratives, we are also tangling with our “heart apes.” This is why I wanted to hear Tom and Heron out about the role of emotions. It’s been my experience that, to the extent I haven’t given full voice to my feelings, I have left a “fifth column” behind. Most times I can disengage enough from my stories to realise they are constructs. However, if I am strongly emotionally attached to a story, it is as if a fog descends on my mind and the story can take me over. I become a full-blown, language monkey, until I can deal with the emotional attachment.

It seems to me that my “language machine” and my “heart ape” have a very intimate relationship with one another, which cannot be safely ignored. They are communicating, egging one another on, incessantly.

Meat Monkeys (our physical being, our bodies)

To complicate this, just a bit, I’m going to refer once again to Heron’s work. In an early podcast, #1 Squishing the Matrix, he talks to Tom about his “monkey,” i.e.: his body, which he must reluctantly attend to occasionally in “squish.” At that time, Heron much preferred life in the Matrix over the “squishy” world of the flesh. He says, quite reasonably, “I want people to focus on my ideas, not me.” Of course, as he acknowledges, and as we all know, unless Rudy Rucker’s vision of uploading “self” into machines comes true, we’re stuck with squishy bodies that need feeding and clothing and sleeping, etc.

Love the matrix as I do, having even, on occasion fallen into it and struggled to climb out, I nonetheless also love the squishy world. The natural world, of course, gazing up at sky through trees, growing my own food, cooking it into yummy concoctions and savouring it, mmmm…and sex, of course. Even cybersex engages bodies, at least, when it’s good. The physical world, beyond its necessity, certainly has many charms.

These bodies of ours are often envisioned, at least since Plato’s Athens, as potential inconveniences that can get in the way of our “true” or “better” selves – selves of the mind. Feminist cyber theory has critiqued this ad nauseum, so I won’t belabour that here. My point is that our bodies, our “meat monkeys,” are also part of “us” and must be dealt with respectfully. When I ignore my body, as I often do when engaged in art-making, or cyber-wandering, or just in a great conversation, it can also become a kind of fifth column. Hunger or exhaustion sap my resilience, stupefy me and make me, once again, extremely susceptible to the authoritarian musings of my language machine.

To wrap this up, then, I am arguing here that a successful program for freeing folk from our, often misleading and destructive, language machines, must include a plan for dealing with meat monkeys (our bodies) and heart apes (our emotions). In order for us to cope with the accelerating changes of the 21st century, we must “become” awakened, “non-selves.” We are most capable when identified with the “Who I am” that arises when we disengage from our stories. We must be emotionally competent folks, who understand that we are intrinsically creatures of mind-body and spirit/heart.

*This idea of the
authoritarian tendencies of our language machines is Tom’s. He elaborates a bit in #61.


Last Hours with Thom Hartmann

This short film provides an excellent summary of where we are, today. What’s at stake? We can chose to continue as we are, and drive ourselves and most of life on earth to extinction. Or, we can choose to de-industrialize, relocalize, and re-ruralize, and hope for a miracle. 

“Degrowth” has to be done very carefully, for a number of reasons. 

First, capitalist economics are based on debt and, therefore, on continual economic growth. No one knows how to degrow an economy without risking a sudden, catastrophic collapse. 

Secondly, coal is the most egregious source of CO2, however, shutting down coal plants will likely cause a spike in temperature as sediments fall out of the atmosphere and stop blocking the sun. 

Thirdly, we are unlikely to be able to safely maintain the world’s 400 plus nuclear reactors on intermittent wind and solar power. We’ll need to decommission them first, and find a way to safely store the spent fuels. if we do not decommission, we’ll be facing increased likelihood of meltdowns due to grid failure as we deindustrialize.

Without power-packed fossil fuels and nuclear reactors, we’ll be reliant on hydro, solar and wind power. 

Unfortunately, all renewables are currently entirely dependent on fossil fuels for their production and distribution. They are built and maintained using CO2 emitting cement or rare earth minerals, which are scarce. One estimate is at current power-usage levels, the minerals used in solar panels would only last long enough to provide one large city, say New York, with power. Obviously, when the panels wore out (after 25-30 years) they could not be replaced.

In addition, large scale renewable projects require computer-run “smart grids” and large-scale battery storage. Computers themselves are among the world’s most fossil-fuel dependant products. It is highly unlikely that we could continue to produce them as we scale down our energy usage.

We have a dilemma on our hands. There is only one way forward. We must halt all emissions, as rapidly as possible, to attempt to stave off a runaway greenhouse event that would likely lead to our extinction. Green growth is NOT an option. 

We must develop new social structures to support human life that are far less energy dependent. Since human population is growing, we will have to do much more, with much less. 

The only way forward is a radical and rapid scaling down to simpler lifestyles, for those in the industrialized world. 

Luckily, permaculture has provided a rough blueprint for how this can be done. Sadly, it is currently practiced only as a fringe alternative in every country except Cuba.

These may very well be our last hours, how will we spend them? Will we at least try to stabilize the biosphere and save ourselves? Will we work tirelessly to save as many other species of plants and animals as possible? These are interdependent goals, we cannot accomplish the former, without the latter. Will we help and support one another through this challenging transition, or will we fight and destroy one another as we scramble for the last fruits?

What will you do?