About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is a ribbonfarm contributing editor and the author of Every Cradle is a Grave. She also blogs at The View from Hell.
Her primary interests are in the area of ritual and social behavior. Follow her on Twitter

Cringe and the Design of Sacred Experiences

When I first started writing about religion for Ribbonfarm, I argued that humans have the capacity for interesting mental states that have become harder to access during the transition to modernity. Here, I focus on the core mental state at the heart of religion, the sacred experience.

When I first read William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, I was disappointed by his focus on “personal religion” (the subjective experience of conversion or of the divine), rather than on ritual, tradition, and organized religion. After many years, I now think his focus on subjective experience is exactly correct. Rituals vary and evolve because the sacred experience is itself the success criterion for the ritual, and as the context changes, the form of rituals must change to continue to produce sacred experience.

I define the sacred experience as follows:

Sacred experience: a subjective experience of unusual emotional arousal, especially in a social ritual context, potentially including negative emotions such as terror, guilt, or hopelessness, followed by unusual calm or euphoria, in the presence of a sensed metaphysically problematic entity or principle.

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Feeling the Future

In After Temporality, I wrote about the phenomenology of the ordinary, healthy experience of time. I wrote this as an outsider, because my own experience of time is not normal. Here, I focus on the phenomenology of time in psychopathological states (prefrontal brain injury, schizophrenia, mania, and depression). What can breakdowns in the experience of time reveal about how the brain constructs time under ordinary circumstances?

In my previous article, I used the word “chronesthesia” to refer to the sense of time: awareness of one’s past and future, coupled with the ability to do “mental time travel,” assembling appropriate memories and projecting the self into imagined possible futures. This is a rather cognitive and bloodless way to describe an alleged sense. But the psychopathological time experience suggests that the experience of normal time is produced and guided by emotion. We feel the future as much as we think it. The feeling of time is instantiated in our bodies out to our skin, and beyond, in the felt bodies of others with whom we synchronize.

In the phenomenological account, there are two modes of being that are relevant here. The first is the absorbed state: proficiently using tools without awareness of the tools as such. Picture driving a car. One is not aware of the motions of one’s hands and feet, or of the internal workings of the automobile. One is simply absorbed in going someplace, and possibly thinking of other things, or even socializing. The second mode is the breakdown state, initiating conscious awareness of oneself and one’s equipment. The brain “wakes up” to some aspect of the environment, because it has failed to accord with previous unconscious predictions. Imagine the gas pedal stops working and the car slows to a halt. Now one pops out of absorbed state into a state of simply using the car, and becomes aware of the car as a thing (a broken thing).

It is the same with time. In the ordinary case, time is invisible. The experience of time is one of absorption. Only when there is a problem do we become conscious of time, and of ourselves in time.
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Folk Concepts

“Folk concept.” You may have never heard the phrase defined, or even used, but you probably already know what it means. Consider this list:

  • luck
  • Bayes’ rule
  • ghosts
  • vitamin C

Which two are folk concepts?

If you were able to instantly see that luck and ghosts are folk concepts, then you are already in possession of the folk concept of the folk concept. The descriptor “folk” invites the hearer to a conversation about less sophisticated people, behind their back. The slick Latinate precision of “concept” underlines the humor: can you imagine common folk having concepts? While the phrase is not always used as a pejorative, the connotation is slightly negative, and social distance is implied. Connotation – the emotional valence of words – is a crucial element in grasping folk concepts. [Read more…]

Rectangle Vision

It’s probably not a good idea to look directly at the rectangles.

If you get into this mode – Rectangle Vision – you wake up in the morning on your rectangle. You lift your head off of its rectangle and toss aside the rectangles wrapped around you, still holding your body’s warmth. You pull a string to lift the sheet of rectangles covering the rectangle in the wall and let the light stream in. You pick up your rectangle to check the time, and perhaps touch a rectangle inside of it, to see all the latest rectangles to make you mad.

You step through a rectangle to leave the bedroom, step through another to wash (perhaps using a cuboid of soap), dry your skin and hair with a rectangle, and check out your reflection in the rectangle. Make your way to the kitchen and open up the rectangle that shields the cold things; perhaps open another rectangle to warm something up. Take it from the counter rectangle and eat it on the table rectangle, sitting on a rectangular platform. Wipe your face with a rectangle. Leave the house through the rectangular portal, making sure you carry your necessary rectangles for identification, payment, work, and entertainment. Then you really enter the land of rectangles: the walls, the steps, the parking spaces, the sidewalk blocks, the signs, the crosswalks, the vents and gratings, all the windows, and every discarded wrapper of a rectangular eyeglass wipe.

Where did all these rectangles come from? There are few rectangles in nature; those that do form (e.g., tessellated pavements) are objects of wonder and mystery, precisely because rectilinear forms present to us as the work of man. This is why the rectangular cuboid monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey is so evocative: without saying so, it’s understood that a regular cuboid like this is the work of intelligence like ours.
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The World As If

This is an account of how magical thinking made us modern.

When people talk about magical thinking, it is usually as a cognitive feature of children, uneducated people, the mushy-minded, or the mentally ill. If we notice magical thinking in ourselves, it is with a pang of shame: literate adults are supposed to be more sophisticated than that. At the same time, magical thinking is obviously rampant in the world. It’s hard not to be fascinated, even if it’s a horrified fascination.

Matthew Hutson’s popular book The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking attempts to get beyond the low-status connotations of magical thinking, as indicated in the subtitle (How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane). Hutson notes that the concept of magical thinking is vague and problematic. He quotes Carol Nemeroff and Paul Rozin:

[T]he variety of things to which [magic] refers is far-reaching, ranging from a social institution characteristic of traditional societies, to sleight-of-hand or parlor tricks, to belief in unconventional phenomena such as UFOs and ESP, to sloppy thinking or false beliefs, and even to a state of romance, wonder, or the mysterious. One must at least entertain the possibility that there is no true category here at all. Instead, the term “magic” in current usage has become a label for a residual category—a garbage bin filled with various odds and ends that we do not otherwise know what to do with.

(Nemeroff, C., an P. Rozin, 2000, “The Making of the Magical Mind,” p. 1)

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Body Pleasure

Suffering is very serious. Death is very important. Let me instead talk about something else that is becoming both serious and important, as the world gets richer and more awesome: the problem of pleasure.

Excessive leisure time is a problem that has only become widespread in the past century. As non-human intelligences get more sophisticated, it may be the case that human work remains extremely important; however, it may also be that humans are faced with increasing leisure. If that is the case, the critical problem facing humanity will be how to enjoy ourselves. If that seems silly, consider your favorite dystopian images of the future: only humans who understand how to enjoy themselves can demand living conditions in which they are able to do so.

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The Power of Pettiness

Do you get annoyed when people repeat claims that you know aren’t true?

Do you feel the urge to correct them, even when you know it’s not important?

Do you feel ashamed when you realize you repeated a false claim or made a grammar error?

Do you habitually add disclaimers to your statements and still worry you might have said something technically wrong?

Do you ever wish you could just mellow out and not care?

Not so fast. For these emotions – pettiness and shame – are the engines driving epistemic progress. Curiosity is the emotion that motivates exploration for new information, as hunger motivates eating. Unfortunately, curiosity is seen as a cute and cuddly emotion, pleasant and smelling of old books. Here I model curiosity as a personal and social process consisting of four virtues: loneliness, ignorance, pettiness, and overconfidence. [Read more…]

Why Books Are Fake

Every citation is either a homework assignment or a promise.

A citation, whether a scholarly footnote in an old book or a hypertext link, either promises the reader that the author has given an accurate and relevant account of the cited material, or assigns the reader to read the cited material in order to remedy the reader’s ignorance (and perhaps save the author the trouble of making a faithful summary). It may be both at once; personally, I go back and forth as context dictates.

Crawling and squirming in between the citations are the implicit citations: all those books, ideas, events, controversies, and mundane rituals of daily life that the author assumes (or pretends to assume) that the reader is already familiar with.

A book presents itself as a self-contained artifact. The form of a book (even an e-book) promises to provide a discrete chunk of knowledge. Consider the recent cult of the book – Reading Rainbow, library fetishism, John Waters’ famous admonition that if you go home with someone and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them. As books began to obsolesce as a form, they were attributed almost sacred value as epistemic tokens. I am not immune to the fantasy that a single book can contain valuable knowledge.
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Fluid Rigor

What made us human? It’s one of the most enduringly interesting questions, from mythology to science, because the apparent ordinariness of being human conceals an abyss of ignorance about how it works and how it came to be.

A profound answer to this question is the one provided by Darwin: natural selection made us human. Theories after Darwin must attempt to explain more specific aspects of human evolution. What was our selective environment like, and what were the crucial adaptations that allowed for the development of our special kind of cognition and social organization? In what order did they occur? Does evolution act on elements of human culture, or on human groups as superorganisms? Some examples of post-Darwinian origin stories: cooking made us human, running made us human (I’m partial to both), compassion made us human, schizophrenia made us human.

Perhaps you have heard of René Girard. He was an interdisciplinary scholar who proposed a theory of what made us human, a process he calls hominization. I have been reading Girard’s Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World and have found it to be a fascinatingly troublesome theory of everything. [Read more…]

Idiots Scaring Themselves in the Dark

Getting lost is a special experience; usually you are not lost. On ordinary days when you are oriented (not lost), a hidden process is happening in the background: you are constantly checking your mental maps against your environment, and finding them to accord well. This constant background process creates the positive sensation of average-everydayness, mundanity, homeliness. You know where you are.

Then things start looking weird. Conflicts between the mental map and the environment start setting off alarm bells. Very gradually, you realize you are lost. You deny it for as long as you can, perhaps acting stupidly and getting yourself more lost. Then it hits you. [Read more…]