The bigger picture

Poltics and personal life, science and religion

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg
Rochester, New York, US
June 20
I am a writer ("The fiction of a thinkable world: Body, meaning, and the culture of capitalism" [Monthly Review Press 2005]; "A new biology of religion: Spiritual practice and the life of the body" [Praeger, 2012]; "Enlightenment Interrupted: The lost moment of German Idealism and the reactionary present" [Zero Books, 2014]) and an attorney. I'm most interested in how we got into our present-day mess and how we can't separate our self-image from the experience of the world.

JUNE 10, 2010 9:16PM

One of us; or, not the usual cat blogging

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The subject of this post

The intense and lovely creature sitting in our bathroom widow sill is ZouZou, one of our two cats. I've had three different calicoes sharing my living space. All of them have been smart and assertive, but ZouZou's the smartest and most assertive of all. She's also the most high-strung and the most educational.

She clearly understands that we can do things that she can't and that if addressed we will (in most cases) comply. She doesn't have to be in the presence of some stimulus to think of it. She'll meow at me in my upstairs office when she wants a cat treat--which is fortunately not too often now that we feed her raw meat--and if I get up she'll run ahead of me, look back to make sure that I'm following, give me a monitory or encouraging second meow, and lead me to the treats. Then it's my turn to ask her where she wants to be fed, which is usually in a corner where she feels safe from interference from Edgar, our other cat.

She tells us to go to bed, to get back in bed if we get up in the middle of the night, to clear away the bedroom or bathroom windowsill, and a good deal more. Better yet, you can engage her in conversation about these important cat topics. "It's too cold," I told her the other day when she asked to have the bathroom window opened. "Maybe later this week, it's supposed to be warmer then."

She looked at me and delivered a long meow, more subdued and more like a whine than the peremptory yowl she started with.

"I know you really want to," I replied, "but I really can't today." And she immediately turned around, raised herself on her hind legs to push the bathroom door open, and went out.

She's also a little obsessive. We once bought a toy made of a plexiglass rod and a long strip of fabric which could be made to dance and dangle in front of her. ZouZou was immediately hooked. She would sit wherever it was and wait for us to play with it. She's normally very shy around strangers but anyone who came to our door would be greeted with loud meows as ZouZou tried to lure them up to her beloved Snaky Thing. She stopped eating. We finally had to take Snaky Thing away when she wasn't looking and hide it.

The point of these stories--which I'm sure aren't unusual--is that they're clear evidence of strong intentionality, complex thinking, and even psychological issues in a being who I'm convinced hasn't anything like the reflexive self-consciousness that you and I have.  ZouZou's bright, but she gives no sign of thinking of herself as an individual or really thinking of herself at all. Everything she does is outer-directed; there's no difference between her feelings and the feeling of the world. And yet she operates in the world uncannily like we do.

What  ZouZou helps me see is that self-consciousness is nowhere near as important as we think it is. We would be different without its activity and influence, but the differences aren't all that significant. Conscious thought seems like it's the be-all and end-all of our emotional, intellectual, and intentional life, but the skill and sophistication of non-conscious activity suggests that instead, in the words of Tor Norretanders, it's only a "user illusion." It's not our government, making decisions; it's our news channel, telling us what we've already decided to do.

Antonio Damasio's work on the emotional roots of decision making, Benjamin Libet's controversial studies suggesting that intentions start before we formulate them, and the discovery of mirror neurons that link us all through feeling and intention--all of these leave us looking less like independent, isolated minds commanded to order our lives through reason and more like nodes in a vast tapestry of action and feeling whose best chance is to open up to our connections with each other. I didn't learn that from ZouZou, but she helped.

And she's cute, too.

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philosophy, neurology, science

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