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

Notes on Doing Things

I have a stupid hippie mantra that my brain says to itself when I’m running and I notice that I’m second- or third-guessing myself over some little decision, like which route to take or how far to go:

Body is driving.

When my brain says this to itself, it’s using a dualistic metaphor similar to the one Jonathan Haidt uses in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. Briefly, there are two selves, one conscious, introspective, logical, and verbal; the other subconscious, sensory, emotional, and largely non-verbal (therefore relatively opaque to introspection by the verbal self). The elephant is apparently responsible for a great deal of behavior.

One upshot of this model is that you can’t just do things: you have to somehow get the elephant to do them. The popular tradition of productivity and getting things done is built around techniques for imposing the will of the rider on the elephant.

However, I am here interested in another way of looking at the duality, which I think my embarrassing, intrusive running mantra explains concisely: how to give the elephant the ability to do what it wants, sometimes even taking a rest and abdicating on behalf of the elephant. [Read more…]

Deep Laziness

Imagine a person who is very lazy at work, yet whose customers are (along with everyone else concerned) quite satisfied. It could be a slow-talking rural shop proprietor from an old movie, or some kind of Taoist fisherman – perhaps a bit of a buffoon, but definitely deeply content. In order to be this way, he must be reasonably organized: stock must be ordered, and tackle squared away, in order to afford worry-free, deep-breathing laziness.

Consider this imaginary person as a kind of ideal or archetype. Now consider that the universe might have this personality.

There is intense laziness apparent in the natural world (which one might come to understand simply by watching household pets). Christopher Alexander (in The Nature of Order, Volume II, pp. 37-39) notes many disparate examples of natural “laziness” that hint at an underlying principle (in history of science, the “principle of least action”): a soap bubble minimizing surface area, Ohm’s law, the shape of a river’s meander. “Many systems do evolve in the direction that minimizes their potential energy,” he says. “The deeper problem is that we are then faced with the question, Why should the potential energy be minimized?” [Read more…]

Luxuriating in Privacy


In my writing over the past few years (Ritual and the Consciousness Monoculture, What is Ritual? The Essence of Peopling, A Bad Carver), I have been somewhat of a cheerleader for group ritual and small group agency, lamenting the capacities and mental states lost in the transition away from a communal, close-knit society, toward an atomized, market-driven society.

In reality, the thought of living in a communal, close-knit society, surrounded daily with family and friends, perhaps living in close quarters with many siblings or children, fills me with horror. Here I will allow my own heart its expression, and be a cheerleader for privacy. For something precious has been gained as well as lost in the transition to social modernity.

Consider obesity. A stylized explanation for rising levels of overweight and obesity since the 1980s is this: people enjoy eating, and more people can afford to eat as much as they want to. In other words, wealth and plenty cause obesity. Analogized to privacy, perhaps the explanation of atomization is simply that people enjoy privacy, and can finally afford to have as much as they want. Privacy is an economic good, and people show a great willingness to trade other goods for more privacy. [Read more…]

Justice Fantasies

Justice is seen mostly clearly in its absence. It is easier to notice injustice than justice, and when people talk about experiencing justice in positive terms, they usually mean that a previous injustice has been remedied.

The experience of injustice spans behaviors ranging in severity from rudeness and negligence to violent crime. But it can also include the distribution of property, as when it is alleged to be unjust that some are very wealthy while others are very poor. If justice is what is revealed by negotiations of injustice, then it is a very broad category, including not only all behaviors, but also the distribution of income, wealth, roads, transportation, housing, food, clothing, fresh water, pollution, education, art, fun, and much more. Bad actions may be judged to be unjust, but even good actions are targets for justice talk when they are considered suboptimal; consider how many people berated Elon Musk for frivolity in sending a car into space, implying that he had a duty to use his resources to solve certain social problems instead (such as buying houses for poor people). Injustice is simply the state of a misfit between the fairness expectations of a group of people and reality.
[Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]

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.
[Read more…]

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.
[Read more…]

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)

[Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]