What about Now?

Now can be a tricky thing to police, I think; it keeps changing its clothes, and each time I think I finally recognize it, I realize I’ve mistaken it for somebody else. Someone from a different time, perhaps; someone who looks a lot like a friend in another place, but who is a stranger here with a similar face…

We should all try to live in the now I’ve read, but where, exactly, is that? And if I ever did run across it as I wander along the streets of my life, how would I recognize it? Or, perhaps more to the point, how could I pause there long enough to know I was in the right place -long enough to use it before it vanished as if it never really was?

There’s a lot of mystery to a now, you have to admit. Quite apart from it being infinitely evanescent, I imagine each one of them is different, if only by shades. A now on, say, Thursday, is no doubt different than a now on any other day, although I’ve never stopped long enough to analyze the contents, let alone committed any one instance to memory well enough for an accurate comparison.

Still, even if each now is in fact unique, why should any one example be privileged over any other? With an ocean to choose from, what advantage can be accorded to a single drop? And anyway, if the drop merely attests to the value found all around it, and is merely a representative of the whole, then is it sort of like the trailer-teaser of a movie, or the sample of a product that is intended to interest you in buying more? In which case, it is the whole that is being advertised, not the part. The part is incomplete: one page of the story, only.

And is any previous now equivalent to any new one? If not, are there any characteristics that should mark it for special consumption? Or should we just draw lots, throw dice, to choose? Even if I could stop long enough to find a now and valourize it, I am concerned I’d end up being saddled with the wrong one. A plain one; a defective one…

Metaphysics is certainly confusing; I see why it, and the most famous of its three children -ontology- has become the province of the Philosophers. Fortunately I stumbled upon an essay on the now in an essay by John Martin Fischer, a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside; I have to confess it took me innumerable nows to read it, however. There’s nothing surprising in that, I suppose -still, it made me wonder if I could ever stay put in a now. https://aeon.co/essays/the-metaphysical-claims-behind-the-injunction-to-be-in-the-now

Fischer outlines the belief of various adherents -religious and otherwise- that ‘although it might seem to us that other times – past and future – are appropriate targets of attention, we can come to understand (intellectually and affectively) that in a fundamental sense… there is only the now, and thus our attention should be focused on it.’ The singularity of the now.

He is not convinced of the uniqueness of any particular now, however; he suggests that although we are, in reality, only present in the now, it is actually a trivial observation. Indeed, ‘now is an indexical term. That is, it’s employed flexibly to point to the particular time when it’s used, not the same time every time it’s used.  Similarly, the term here is an indexical term, employed flexibly to refer to the place where it’s uttered, not the same place wherever it’s uttered. Now is a temporal indexical, and here is a spatial indexical.’ I like that.

‘It’s thus not true that it’s always now, in the sense that it’s always the same time… Interpreted so that it’s correct, the intuitive idea that it’s always now doesn’t support the crucial inference that we should focus on the present because of its singularity.’ To paraphrase that apocryphal woman who, when challenged to answer what supported the turtle she believed held the world in place, it’s nows all the way down -an infinite number, in fact. Each may well be a singularity… but so what? What makes any one of them so special? There will no doubt be others each claiming to be exceptional, but only because they are indeed different from the rest.

As Fischer says, ‘it’s that there’s no necessity or inevitability to focusing only on the present moment, based on the fact (if it is a fact) that it’s the only moment that exists or is real.’ And, since it is obviously true that we can neither act in the past, nor in the future and only in the present -the now– then shouldn’t we try to stay in it…? Uhmm, I’m not convinced there’s an option, frankly. And anyway, there are inevitable consequences of acting in any given now that spread into the future and so are not a part of that special ‘singularity’. So, let me repeat, why is it so special -and why would I ever want to privilege it as if it actually contained something more than temporal instantaneity? After all, as Fischer points out, ‘every way of inhabiting the now (including ‘being here now’) is also a way of taking up the past and orienting ourselves to the future.’

No, I’m afraid I’m not really convinced there are any special values to the nows that flash past us like individual frames on a celluloid movie reel. It’s the movie as a whole that is ultimately what each now contributes to: the story. That’s where we all live, after all.

I suppose that if we find the story unpleasant in passages, we might benefit by pausing for a now or two -perhaps in meditation, or conversation with a friend- but in the end, we have to join the succession of picture frames and get on with our lives. It’s how it works.

As Fischer concludes, ‘We have a choice about what we focus on, a choice not dictated by the unique present, if there is one. We are free to choose how we wish to be. We should indeed be here now, but not because the now is all we have.’ We think in Time, we love in Time, we live in Time. Perhaps we should enjoy what we have left of it. All of it…!

Comfort like cold porridge

I go a lot by taste. It has usually been a fair guide to what I’m eating, but in this era of plant-based meat, I’m no longer as sure. I’m certainly in favour of diminishing my ecological footprint, and a career as a Vegan is not really in the cards, I’m afraid, but lately I’ve been wondering how much I can trust the advertised contents -even when they’re listed on the label.

To start with, I’m not always familiar with some of the ingredients -or, for that matter, their possible health effects. It’s all very reassuring to see them listed, but I’m not sure how that helps the average person decide whether or not the product is safe for them, especially long-term. Most of us, I suspect, confine our reading to things like the caloric content, and maybe the amount of salt. I doubt that even the health-conscious delve much deeper than, say, the amount of fibre or perhaps whether or not it is gluten-free. The rest is largely a meaningless blur; we assume that the rest of the ingredients have passed some careful scrutiny by the health authorities and are deemed safe.

In fact, I suppose the fact that they are listed as present on the label means we can trust both their safety as well as their presence. Short of operating our own food analysis lab, the only other option is to try our luck with another product whose ingredients we find more reassuringly recognizable. Of course, the elephant in the room -or the jar- is the ability to trust whatever is listed. That may be a mistake.

And yet, perhaps I was already suspicious after reading a novel years ago during my impressionable university days. As with many of the books I’ve read, I’ve retained only interesting fragments that often had little to do with the main theme, but I do remember (I think) a scene in the 1906 novel by Upton Sinclair –The Jungle- that dealt with unsanitary practices in the meat packing plants in Chicago at the time. One of the workers fell into a vat of sausage meat and the because accident was purposely ignored, his body (I assume) was ground into somebody’s sausage. Not only did that have quite an effect on me reading about it some 60 years later, but it must also have shocked the public at the time, and led to greater regulation of the industry and the passing of a Meat Inspection Act.

But that was long ago, and I imagine most of us assume that things have improved steadily since then. Indeed they have, but human nature being what it is, there are always loopholes; there are always lapses in regulatory scrutiny.

I am an obsessive examiner of food labels, and have come to avoid most products that don’t display them. Of course, there are exceptions, where I have to trust the shop from which I buy them. Meat and fish, for example -only the store knows their source and whether they have good reason to believe what they have been told by the original seller.

You have to trust somebody, naturally, but what about the source the store itself relies on? How thoroughly do they investigate their providers? How vigilant should I be? How vigilant can I be?

I happened upon an article by John G. Keogh who is a researcher in Food Chain Transparency at the University of Reading. https://theconversation.com/fish-sausage-even-honey-food-fraud-is-hidden-in-plain-sight-130186

‘The globalization of the food chain has resulted in increased complexity and diminished transparency and trust into how and where our foods are grown, harvested, processed and by whom.’ And he suggests that this very complexity has allowed people to exploit the system. Unless the food is locally sourced, there is seldom the ability for the retailer to have personal knowledge of the origin of their groceries.

Indeed, ‘Before modern supermarkets, a local village or town grocery store stocked up to 300 items grown or processed within a 240-kilometre (150-mile) radius. In comparison, our post-modern supermarkets carry an average of 33,000 items that travel 2,400 kilometres or more.’ So, perhaps as a result, the ‘Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) suggests food fraud affects 10 per cent of commercially sold food. Various academic and industry sources suggest that globally, food fraud ranges from US$10 billion to $49 billion… If you add the sales of fake wines and alcohol, adulterated honey and spices, mislabelled fish and false claims of organic products, wild-caught fish or grain-fed meat, the numbers, and risks, increase significantly.’

Canada, as with most other developed nations, seems to be aware of the risks and has duly enacted regulations in an attempt to curb abuse, but the problem -not unique to Canada, of course- is in the enforcement. Apart from the vigilance required, it is hugely expensive, and the government has turned to genomics and DNA to detect some of the animal product deceptions. For example, there have been ‘a number of research papers uncovering food fraud and revealing the mislabelling of fish species in Canadian restaurants and grocery stores.’ And there was a paper ‘entitled “Re-visiting the occurrence of undeclared species in sausage products sold in Canada” as a followup to a previous study that showed a 20 per cent mislabelling rate for sausage… sampled from grocery stores across Canada [and] contained meats that weren’t on the label. The followup indicated 14 per cent of the 100 sausages tested still contained meat DNA that was undeclared on the label.’

I bought some fish the other day from a store I have come to trust. Of course the fact that it had a 25% off in a red sticker on the wrapper should have alerted something in my hindbrain, but I suppose I was in a hurry and thought it would make a delicious dinner. It purported to be steelhead -one of my favourites- but after I had prepared and barbecued it using a recipe I resort to for special occasions, it tasted suspiciously like Pink salmon. I loved it, though, so I wasn’t so much disappointed as surprised. So, even if it was mislabelled, I could think of no reason to complain to the store.

I still don’t buy sausages, though.

The rest is silence

There’s something special about place, don’t you think? For some, it is a beautiful sight -a mountain, perhaps, or a field of flowers basking in the sun. I agree, of course -vision paints a scene- but for me, it does not capture it. Not completely. Photographs are only quiet markers of things that cannot truly live in silence.

I am seduced by sound, but as I age, my ears, too, have yellowed with the years. I worry that I may eventually slip my anchorage and have to rely too much on sight. Already, I am dependent more on memory than I might wish. Audio ergo video I used to think; but really, it was more like audio ergo sum, however. For me, place is not merely accompanied by sound, described by sound -it is sound! Make a joyful noise, says one of the Psalms I remember from my childhood. I suppose I must have taken it to heart…

Now I will do nothing but listen. That is from a part of the Song of Myself  by the 19th century American poet Walt Whitman -only a part, because I have long treated myself to paring off the bits and pieces I wish to enjoy. I recognize the limits of judging something with carefully trimmed adjectives of course, but there you have it. At any rate, Whitman’s decision is a good one -profound in so many ways.

I’ve read Hempton and Grossmann’s book One Square Inch of Silence with interest and not a little dismay. They start their Prologue with a quote from the Nobel Prize winning bacteriologist Robert Koch, ‘The day will come when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague.’ And then go on to say that ‘Today silence has become an endangered species. Our cities, our suburbs, our farm communities, even our most expansive and remote national parks are not free from human noise intrusions. Nor is there relief even at the North Pole; continent-hopping jets see to that. Moreover, fighting noise is not the same as preserving silence. Our typical anti-noise strategies … offer no real solution because they do nothing to help us reconnect and listen to the land.’

I am getting old, though: I love sound, and if it’s mixed in with a little noise, I welcome the challenge. After all, noise is really just sound from which meaningful information is missing, or at least difficult to extract -and if it’s not too loud, I say give me the chance. I suppose that’s why I cannot abide earphones when I walk or run through the woods: they imprison me. What I want to hear is the sighing and creaking of the trees in a passing breeze, the mysterious crackling of branches deep in the forest, or the gurgling of a creek hidden somewhere nearby. The distant pounding of a woodpecker is a plus, but I’ll accept the call of a solitary raven searching for who knows what in trees too far away to see. All are Imagination’s guest: the mysteries that scrape quietly against its windows, the rustling shadows that appear like tiny whispering moths heard only in the corners of its ever listening ears.

A few years ago I remember being summoned into the deep green forest, not by formal writ, or a surfeit of leisure, you understand, but by the lusty song of what I used to call ‘the wind-up bird’ because its song seemed to go on and on like in a wind-up toy I was given as a child. In fact, its proper name is Troglodytes pacificus but it prefers just plain Pacific Wren unless it’s being formally introduced at a conference. They’re really quite small, so I’ve never actually seen one in the trees. But since there seemed to be a trail leading towards the sound, I thought it might be an adventure worth pursuing.

It was a mountainous part of the coastal forest I’d never been in before, and I carefully noted the fluorescent red ribbons used as markers for the trail. It’s embarrassing to get lost in the wilderness, and you can get eaten, so I try to be careful. Sometimes, of course, it’s difficult to allocate sufficient neurological resources to keep track of everything at the same time and I soon lost track of the ribbons -and also the bird; I suppose it heard me thrashing through the bushes as I fashioned my own clumsy trail.

You sort of know which way is out on a mountain, though. If you started near the bottom, you go down. If you started from the summit, you still pretty well do the same thing. So I wasn’t worried. And besides, there’s quite a lot going on if you really listen. I have my favourites, of course -wind ruffling its way through a forest of needles is one, although with cedars, are they needles, or leaves? That question always keeps me occupied for a while -I don’t think anybody is willing to commit, however.

And then there’s the legendary tree falling in the forest, and whether or not it still has to pretend to make a noise if there’s nobody around to hear it. Mind you, it’s hard to know just how often that happens, but since I figured I was all alone and not shouting or anything, if I did hear one in flagrante delicto, as it were, that should count, eh?

Unfortunately, apart from me tripping on stray roots, and being scratched by curious bushes, I heard no tree fall… or maybe, it didn’t know I was around, and it fell in silence. I believe there are a lot of unreported mysteries on a mountain.

But I also listen for grunts and howls in the woods, random crackles behind me, or heavy breathing close by. These have a different cachet, depending where I am. In a place where I am only noticed if I smell appetizing, a different algorithm is called for. It seems to me that sometimes the Whitman Principle only applies at the starting block: it determines the direction to run. And so when I heard something snuffling nearby, I understood that the time for simply listening was over.

As I started to crash through the undergrowth, I realized that for several carved moments, I was sound incarnate. I began wondering how my frantic uncoordinated scramble must seem to the animals in the forest who were used to hiding in silence for their lives -I was demonstrating there was also life in noise.

It was just a prophylactic journey, of course -a tentative foray into sound; I wasn’t sure where, or what I had heard, but it had suddenly changed from an interesting scrunch of the kind I was so fond of hearing underfoot on the carpet of leaves, to the more menacing sound that predators are decidedly not fond of wasting.

Eventually, I stopped and listened again, but this time it was not menace that greeted me from the foliage, but a burbling stream that danced onomatopoeically over rock and root, humming gaily as it purred over boulders and whispered under fallen logs: a chorister’s dream. And, even though I had always been too shy to sing with others, I joined it in a shy and halting duet of pastoral celebration. 

But nowadays, when I walk alone in the forest, I find that I am often consumed with a question -this one of a different existential significance: is a person warbling to a creek really making a joyful noise if there’s no one around to hear him?

Fake lies?

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about truth, but not for the reasons you might expect. Not because of the abundance of ‘fake news’ about which we seem to be constantly reminded, and not necessarily because I’ve been occasionally embarrassed in a lie, nor because of the tangled web you wove when first you practiced to deceive.

Fake news and deception, not to mention outright lies, have been in the headlines in recent years, but deception is certainly not unique to our era -nor even our species. Think of bird behaviour to distract predators from their nest, cowbirds that lay their eggs in other nests to trick the foreign mothers into raising the alien young, or squirrels that pretend to bury acorns in one place, but in case they were observed, actually keep them in their mouths while they find another spot to cache them.

I grant almost universality to the practice of intended deception -especially where there is something being protected, if only reputation or status. And, given its ubiquity and seemingly relentless practice in humans, it has a long history of ethical debate. Deception, of course is different from lying -deception is more a case of misleading, whereas lying is saying something known to be false.

I am concerned by something a little different, however. I am vexed by what, at first glance, would seem to be a more trivial concern: does a writer of fiction actually lie? And if the medium is one that does not purport to be factual -a novel, say- is it even possible? How important is truth in a fictive world -as long as it is internally consistent? A character in that story can lie, to be sure, but how analogous is that to a real-life character doing the same thing?

Writers have strange thoughts -perhaps that’s why they end up writing- but nonetheless I have been curious about this for some time now. I wonder about the ethics of fiction -not malicious, or scandalous fiction, you understand (although I suspect even those are merely the far edge of the spectrum). As it applies to writing, the very definition of ‘fiction’ -from the Latin fingere, to contrive- suggests imaginative creation, not investigative reportage where false attributions are indeed ethically problematic.

I’ve written fiction for years now (putting aside the fact that I am not at all widely published) so have I been lying all these years? If one of my characters lies, or deceives, and it happens to be read by someone in the ‘real-world’ -trespassing, in other words- have those lies in some sense transgressed the real-world ethics? Soiled our nest?

You’re right, it is perhaps a trifling concern, and yet bothersome nonetheless; I despaired of ever seeing it as the subject of an understandable evaluation. But, on one of my wide-eyed explorations, I happened upon a thoughtful essay by Emar Maier, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Groningen. https://aeon.co/essays/how-to-tell-fact-from-fiction-in-fiction-and-other-forms-of-lies

He starts by considering the work of another philosopher, H.P. Grice who considers that ‘it all comes down to the assumption that communication is fundamentally a cooperative endeavour,’ and postulates what seem to be almost ‘Golden Rule’ maxims of quality in communication: ‘‘do not say what you believe to be false’ and ‘do not say that for which you have insufficient evidence’.’ And yet, we violate these all the time -we tell jokes, we exaggerate, we deceive, we use metaphors, we use sarcasm, and, of course, we tell stories. ‘In all of these cases there is a clear sense in which we are not really presenting the truth, as we know it, based on the best available evidence. But there are vast differences between these phenomena. For instance, while some constitute morally objectionable behaviour, others are associated with art and poetry.’

There is a difference, though, between violating one of Grice’s norms, and flouting it with, say, a sigh and rolling of the eyes. However untrue the assertion, it is readily recognizable as an exaggeration or even a lie that is not meant to be taken as true. On the other hand, ‘Liars… violate the same maxim, but they don’t flout it. Theirs is a covert violation, and hence lying has an altogether different effect on the interpreter than irony, sarcasm or metaphor.’

Fiction, however, is more complicated. A work of fiction ‘consists of speech acts that, for the most part, look like ordinary assertions.’ And yet, ‘As with lies and irony, there is no dedicated grammar or style for constructing fictional statements that would reliably distinguish them from regular assertions.’

So, ‘Is fiction more like the covert violation of the liar, or like the overt violation of the ironical speaker? Unlike the liar, the fiction author doesn’t hide her untruthful intentions.’ There are two ways to look at this, Maier says: either that ‘both fiction and lying are quality-violating assertions – ie, speech acts presenting something believed to be false as if it’s known truth’ or ‘we can analyse fictional discourse as constituting a different type of speech act, where the usual norms and maxims don’t apply in the first place.’

‘[T]he idea that both lying and fiction are just assertions of known falsehoods can be traced back to eminent philosophers such as Plato, who wanted to ban poets from his ideal society, [and] David Hume who called them ‘liars by profession’’.

I, however, am more convinced by the opinion of Albert Camus, who believed that ‘fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth’. At any rate, Maier goes on to observe that a ‘striking difference between fictional statements and lies is the fact that, while most lies are simply false… many philosophers have argued that the statements making up a work of fiction, even those involving clearly nonexistent entities, are not really false, but at least ‘in some sense’ true – viz… true relative to the fictional world in question.’ Now we’re getting somewhere -it’s context that matters.

A second difference between fiction and lies, is the emotional response -the paradox of- fiction. ‘[W]orks of fiction induce… a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’, allowing us to be emotionally engaged with commonly known falsehoods. Lies evidently lack this property: once a lie is exposed, suspension of disbelief and emotional engagement in accordance with the story’s content become impossible… the difference between fictional statements and regular communicative assertions lies not in some hidden logical operators in the fictional assertion, but in the fact that telling fictional stories is an altogether different speech act from the act of assertion that makes up our talk about the weather, or our newspaper reporting.’ Kind of what I suspected all along. ‘As the English poet and soldier Sir Philip Sidney put it in The Defence of Poesy (1595): ‘Now for the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth.’

So, ‘it seems that fiction and lying are mutually exclusive, for they belong to distinct speech act categories, conform to different norms, and affect different cognitive states… since it is the text itself that generates the fictional world, the statements that make up that text should automatically become true in that world. When George Orwell wrote that ‘the clocks were striking thirteen’, it thereby became true in the fictional world of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) that the clocks were striking thirteen. Unlike for the historian or the journalist, there is no relevant world outside the text, relative to which we could fact-check whether Orwell miscounted. This line of argument can be summed up in the principle of authorial authority: the statements that make up a work of fiction are true in that fiction.’

Of course there are things like ‘imaginative resistance’ where internal inconsistencies disrupt belief, but writers -and certainly proof readers and editors- are pretty good at resolving these gaffes before they are hung out to air on the clothesline of publication.

At any rate, I’m not sure I’ve discovered many immutable truths in Maier’s treatment of fictive lying, but I feel better about my own ethics of make-believe. I do still wonder about the boundary markers at that razor-thin edge where well-written fiction seems real and induces real emotion. I suppose edges are usually like that, though: porous…