Proxemics

Thu 03/16/06 at 2:38 pm

Each morning I pour a cup of coffee, fire up my computer, and check my email. I subscribe to two daily emails, the Oxford English Dictionary Word of the Day and the Writer’s Almanac. A couple weeks ago, one of the OED words was “proxemics,” a term coined in the 1960s to signify “the branch of knowledge that deals with the amount of space that people feel it necessary to set between themselves and others.” I was reminded that as a freshman at the University of Minnesota in 1973, I participated in an experimental program called “Interdisciplinary Studies.” All of my courses — save one elective (which, I’m proud to say was the first course formerly offered by the newly created Women’s Studies Department) — contained elements from a number of disciplines. Hence, for instance, “English 101” became “Communications 101.” In the course we studied cultural differences in the way people communicate, including the need for “personal space” in the process of doing so. I learned to be more tolerant of those individuals who wanted to have a conversation “up front and personal” and to check my tendency for hurt feelings if adjustments were made in that regard by individuals with whom I was communicating. Thirty and then some years later, I now have a word for those differences.

The appearance of the term also gave me the impetus I needed finally to sit down and organize my thoughts about another subject involving personal space that has been drifting in and out of my consciousness for awhile, that subject being the physical awareness of myself. During the early days of this blog, I wrote about an idea that came crashing through my brain one day — the significance of the irregularity of the verb “to be” and what it is to “am” as opposed to “be.” See April 21, 2004 Post. Both before and after that epiphany, I’ve spent my fair share of time thinking about being and nothingness or sameness and otherness having been introduced during that same timeframe thirty years ago to de Beauvoir and The Second Sex via Women’s Studies and Sartre via a class on Existentialism taken to satisfy my foreign language requirement. (Ah, the idyllic days of a liberal arts education in the 70s.) It was not until I read Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief by Andrew Newburg, M.D. in connection with my research for The First Voice, however, that I realized the necessity for my brain to have a sector housing the neurons that enable me to apprehend that I am encased in skin which skin forms the boundary between myself and the rest of the universe.

According to Newburg, “the proper name of this highly specialized bundle of neurons is the “posterior superior parietal lobe” which he dubs the “Orientation Association Area or OAA.” Id. at p. 4. He goes on to observe “it may seem strange that the brain requires a specialized mechanism to keep tabs on this you/not-you dichotomy; from the vantage point of normal consciousness, the distinction seems ridiculously clear. But that’s only because the OAA does its job so seamlessly and so well.” Id. at p. 5.

The visual of this dichotomy is easy; I can see myself in a mirror. Feeling the dichotomy is a little iffier. Unless I am touching something, I don’t have a sensation of being separate. Once this thought came to the forefront, however, I began to notice the role warmth plays in defining me to me. For instance, when I first get into bed and pull the covers over me, I experience the sensation of the atmosphere warming around my body and I become aware of my “blobbness,” i.e., the pool of warmth I am thanks to whatever chemical processes heats my blood to 98.6° F. Feeling myself as a blob is “being,” and that in and of itself is quite delicious. But knowing I am a blob is “am-ing” and that, for me, encapsulates Hamlet’s “rub.” As Newburg explains:

There seems to be, within the human head, an inner, personal awareness, a free-standing, observant itself. We have come to think of this self, with all its emotions, sensations, and cognitions, as the phenomenon of mind. Neurology cannot completely explain how such a thing can happen — how a somehow nonmaterial mind can rise from mere biological function; how the flesh and blood machinery of the brain can suddenly become “aware.” Science and philosophy, in fact, have struggled with this question for centuries, but no definitive answers have been found, and none is clearly on the horizon.

Id. at p. 32. Perhaps my limited knowledge of mathematics makes me naïve, but I am confident that one day someone will come up with the mathematics to answer the question. Until then, in The First Voice, my character Michael Sadek will draw on certain tenets of quantum physics to explain the phenomenon to Elfredge. But because I in particular, and we in general, still lack the math, his explanation will require him to resort, as have so many others in the past with varying degrees of success, to metaphor. At present, then, Michael’s story goes something like this:

Back in imaginary time before the big bang, our universe consisted of a single point of zero size and infinite density, known as a “singularity.” One way to explain this phenomenon is to imagine the Platonic ideal of the verb “to be.” This singularity was comprised of planck-length particles known as strings which were all vibrating in the unity of “be-ness” that sounded surprisingly like the Buddhist manta, “om mani padme hum.” And then, one of those strings squawked, “I am.” The force occasioned by this irregularity caused the singularity to explode at the precise spot where the spacetime curvature becomes infinite, blasting a primordial black hole crater and creating the universe in its wake.

Thirteen billion and some years later, the original I-am string, along with a number of variations on its theme (collectively known as the Elohim to some) [see January 28, 2006 Post], arrived at a solar system revolving around a star that would come to be known as the Sun located on the outskirts of a galaxy that would come to be known as The Milky Way. These string formations went into orbit around one of the planets in the solar system that would come to be known as Earth. Once there, they used the materials present in the primordial soup to make blobs designed to encompass and form a symbiotic relationship with a grouping of strings comprised of innumerable “be” or “soul” strings and one dormant “am” or “mind” string. Electrical impulses set off at the start of this relationship caused the “am” string to begin vibrating at a frequency that engendered consciousness.

I’ll stop now before I give everything away. “But wait!” you say, “What has any of this to do with proxemics?” Well, based on the above, the meaning of the term needs to be expanded to include the branch of knowledge that deals with the amount of space that a mind feels it necessary to set between itself and other minds so as to avoid reassimalation with the other stings and thereby once again become one with the universe.

Copyright © 2006 by cko.

next post: Hardened Hearts
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