Sunday, March 3, 2013

On Spinoza’s Modes of Perception

Spinoza identifies four main modes of perception. The first, he calls hearsay. Things we hear through the grapevine. Rumors. Bromides. Platitudes. Unexamined truisms, such as the linear model of progress via technology : color is an advance on black and white, sound is an advance on silent films, computers and Smartphones have so revolutionized information and social activity that we’re all much smarter than people in the Stone Age, those beetle-browed clods that painted all those bison and horses on the walls of caves. Solitude is for malcontents and eccentrics, books and maps are for luddite hippies and nostalgic holdouts, and cell phones and GPS’s are essential tools for survival.

By this logic, Kim Kardashian is a genius, and Henry Thoreau is a total idiot.

The second mode of perception Spinoza identifies as anything we’ve acquired through some vague experience. That is to say, once, when we were very, very high on hashish or psilocybin or LSD, we realized that one day we would die, but that in dying, we would become a larger part of the universe, for that is where we are from, we are all clouds of molecules held together for a time in order to taste and experience being, simple being, simple existence, existence with no ulterior purpose, existence as a manifestation of the fundamental joy and benevolence that is the true marrow of the cosmos.
The third mode of perception is our understanding of cause and effect. The perception that if we lift a specified weight of iron each day, our muscles will grow, and we will look spectacular, capable and strong, our bodies symphonies of bone and muscle, heart rate and blood. Or, if we drink a pint of whiskey we will become very drunk and say things we may later regret. Or, if we drop a watermelon from the top of a high building it will splatter into a thousand pieces. Or, if we refuse to pay our rent, the marshal will come and put us out on the street. Or, if we press ‘L’  on the elevator it will take us to the lobby, and if we press 4 it will take us to the fourth floor, and if we press X it will take us somewhere mysterious, somewhere, possibly, in the clouds, where angels ride Harley Davidsons fueled with rat farts and Jimi Hendrix plays a Gibson Flying V guitar dripping with heavenly fire.
The fourth mode of perception is ontological : that which seizes us with its essence. When we know, for instance, the soul of a thing, and that it is knocking on our ribcage with its very truth, its very molecules mingling with ours, tingling in our nerves, potentiating our being with the power of its truth. The knowledge that one plus one is two, or that a circle is the set of all points in a plane that are a given distance from a center. Or that pumpernickel is a form of bread, or that a pump is a device that moves fluids by mechanical action. There are things that murder the sly demon of analogy with the solidity of their irreducible pith.

I would like to add a few more modes to Spinoza’s list. Perceptions, for instance, that are the children of ether, a post-surgical trance in which a thousand sensations coalesce into a lambent circumlocution of random ideas, and a fold of blanket becomes a hillock in Hyde Park, or a willow in the bloodstream sobbing with literature. This is akin to the second mode of perception, but with one important difference. The experiences aren’t so much vague as flirtatious, reckless and prodigal as gnomes in a goldmine. This is where the external world and the internal world meet at an horizon of prairie motel signs, a Buick LaCrosse burning through winter on a highway to Abilene. Or a soft punctuation of stars on a sentence of rampant parquet. 

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