The human brain is the source of our rational faculties and the focus of our industrialised education system, but is that where all of our intelligence lives?
Any teenage boy on his way to a school dance or drinking party knows only too well the experience of
“thinking” with other parts of his anatomy, and yet, since at least The Enlightenment, we’ve created a society and a culture that almost exclusively priviledges the big squishy ball of spaghetti between our ears.i Much to the detriment of our social relations, the quality of our built environments, our nutrition,ii and a thousand other maladies of modernity (and post-modernity), we currently tend to focus on optimising whatever can be captured by our spreadsheets, pretending that the incalculable is equivalent to the non-existent; that there’s no God because there’s nothing we don’t or can’t know.iii
This assessment feels at least directionally correct, y’know? But to those of us interested in other cultural and even other physiological perspectives – whether because we see ourselves as inherent outsidersiv or simply on account of our inborn curiousities – this Rationalist/Enlightenment/Cerebral perspective hardly seems to tell the whole story, which is why is stands in such stark contrast to so many other successful forms of human adaptation and understanding. I mean really, who reasons their way through their most important decisions in life? Charles Darwin wrote a compelling list of pros and cons for getting married in which the latter clearly outweighed the former, and yet he still went ahead and got hitched!v
All of which brings us neatly to the show-stopping Sámi/Nordic Pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale,vi which I attended last month,vii and the exhibit that’s been on my mind ever since. There, suspended from the ceiling by so many strings, were a series of stomach linings representing an installation by Máret Ánne Sara (1983-) entitled Gutted – Gávogálši (2022). To quote from the Office for Contemporary Art Norway:
Gutted – Gávogálši is a constellation of dried reindeer stomachs addressing Sámi spiritual and material forms of knowledge and kinship. The work highlights the stomach as a first site of emotion to events in the world and underlines their sensate power as a parallel intelligence that connects humans, reindeers and other life. This gamus dovdat and čoalit dovdet, which translates as ‘we know by instinct’ and ‘gut feeling’, is highly valued by Sámi philosophy. Each stomach represents a person responsible for the conflicts recently experienced by the Sara family; in so doing, the artist redirects the trauma back onto the perpetrators, cleansing herself and her family from it.
Just look at the vasculature, the colour, the complexity, the in-your-face mortality, and the intelligence of it all. Indeed, there’s so much more to understanding the world than mere statistical knowledge, not least of all because “we” are in fact more “other” than we are “self” when we ironically count the co-dependent microorganisms living in our guts.viii By some estimations, “we” are outnumbered 10:1. How’s that for a stat! And yet we all occupy the same singular vessel on the same human journey.ix And what a journey it is…
To close with Robert Frost (1874-1963) and his poem “The Road Not Taken”:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The Sámi/Nordic Pavilion is open now until November 27th, 2022.
[Image credits: Michael Miller / OCA, Michael Miller / OCA, author]
- Is it any wonder that so much of our online fora are so bloody vacuous? And yet we post and post (and take the piss) because we’re lonely; because we expect the satisfaction of the thin loops between our eyes and our cerebral cortices to be necessary and sufficient for flourishing, even when the mere functional existence of blind people counters the necessity, and the mere dysfunctional existence of so many of us – both individually and collectively – counters the sufficiency. ↩
- Go figure that our post-modern society has so many nutritional fundamentalists, whether it’s vegans or macro-bioticists or people with “allergies” to peanuts, lactose, gluten, shellfish, etc. Just as it’s hard to take a calculus test when you’re hammered on vodka or flying on molly, it’s hard to make good “gut instinct” decisions when you’re bloated and shitting brown soup. How are we supposed to to rely on the judgement of a poisoned organ? ↩
Finding God isn’t just about finding the transcendent, but also about connecting with the ancient wisdom of tradition. Through books and practices, our ancestors are practically begging us to make our lives more bearable, joyful, and prosperous, if only we’ll listen. ↩
- What does it mean to be an inherent outsider? It means to be “other”, per my October 2022 article Nix Ye or PhoYenix:
As to Ye’s “Jewishness” I actually *get* what he means when he says he’s one of the Tribe because what does it really mean to be Jewish? Aside from being well read, which Ye isn’t, and devoted to a tradition more than a faith per se, which Ye isn’t, it means to be the “other,” which Ye actually seems to embrace and embody! For better or worse, the Jew (the comedian!) takes the position of revealing truths in ways that the Emperor can mostly tolerate, even if that means the overstepping the lines once in a while and losing one’s head, knowing only too well that the trade-off for this freedom of expression is the occasional scapegoating and subsequent purge, which is also a healthy part of any functioning ecosystem. As Anselm Kiefer reminds us in Venice, forest fires burn the excesses of old and allow the seeds of opportunity to flourish in the next generation.
- Story retold by Russ Roberts in his most recent book, Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us. ↩
Not only was there bravery and boldness in the Norwegian government’s decision to hand over this year Biennale keys to leading artists from one of their Indigenous communities, which itself stood tall amongst the other pavilions this year, but I have to say that the architecture of pavilion itself was also in a league of its own. Located in the giardini with trees growing from the centre of the space way up high through the roof, the Sverre Fehn-designed structure is defined by its stunning roof of slender concrete lamellae supporting the translucent plexiglass roof, with each lamellae 1m tall and 6cm thin with a spacing of 52.3cm between them.
- See also my Anish Kapoor review from that magical week in Venice. ↩
- Speaking of the news a bit this week: it’s no wonder that SBF makes us sick to our stomachs. Unwittingly prestigious autists be disgusting like that! But hey, “we” didn’t ask for these roles and responsibilities so don’t shoot the messenger either.
Relatedly, if your stomach told you that self-custody was in any way optional for participation in crypto, your stomach is a fucking retard. But hey, that’s also the difference between children and adults: adults can learn from the mistakes of others without having to make the mistakes firsthand (and yes, I know that means that there aren’t many adults extant, c’est dommage, c’est la vie).
- I love this quote that Zohar Atkins recently recounted on a podcast interview:
We aren’t human beings on a spiritual journey, we’re spiritual beings on a human journey.