Monday, May 3, 2010

Dragonfly Eyes: Take 3 - Linear vs. Circular Concepts of Time - Is indigenous logic linear?

The conference organizers asked us how we, as a representative of our discipline, envision the future.

I found the question hard to answer. I don't know that my discipline necessarily envisions the future. In addition, since my work is so tied to who I am, I had to answer the question from my position as a cancer patient.

[An aside: there is a lot of debate among cancer patients about what to ourselves: are we survivors? That implies that we are through with treatment and have survived. I'm getting to the point where I dislike the image of being at war. But, what if we are currently undergoing treatment? Then we are technically cancer patients, but a lot of us don't like the image of "patient" because it implies a weakness and we don't feel weak most of the time. I thought that maybe we could call ourselves "cancer treatees" - as the recipients of treatments from those who treat us. I also like to think of myself more as healing from the cancer. What do you call someone in the process of healing? A healee? Now I'm just getting silly, but I'm throwing it out there in the interest of finding a new term for those of us healing from cancer - I don't like to call myself a survivor (for that invokes a war-like image) and I don't like to call myself a patient. I sorta like cancer "treatee" because it's a play on the word "treaty", which means making peace - a first step toward healing.]

As a cancer "treatee", I am learning to live in the present. As explained in an earlier post, I don't really like to worry too much about the future, because worrying doesn't get me anywhere; but I like to think of a future full of possibilities. It requires action on my part; as one of our organizers (K) said a couple of times, we need to cocreate the future and that will involve careful deliberations about how to make that come about. As a cancer "treatee", I am trying to recreate and envision a future that doesn't involve cancer. I am making small incremental changes and I often don't blog about it, but I am continually changing how I am as a person.

I was struck, this past week-end, by the prevailing idea of linear time that permeates our culture and society. Our philosophers introduced the idea of practical syllogism (apologies to my philosopher friends and colleagues who may not like the wiki link, but it was quick way to explain it). I first want to note that it is useful for certain purposes about how to encourage action. I agree with others that it will help us to see things more clearly about what our path might be.

But I tried to explain that the logical and linear arrangement of statements is based upon a western ontological and epistemological outlook that sees time as linear.

As an example, one metaphor that we used in trying to "map" what our task is was the metaphor of dragonfly eyes - with its many facets and perspectives coming together to present a particular vision to the dragonfly. We made a kind of map that shows our network of interconnections to each other - circles representing different disciplines with lines and arrows showing the connections. One network represented the past and another such network represented the future. One of our colleagues, M., saw the two networks as "eyes" with an "optic nerve" running between them. We live in the present - on the optic nerve - ever moving from the past to the future, represented as the line of the optic nerve. As the past changes behind us (because of our actions in the present causing the networks to move about), the future also changes.

M likened the idea of always looking into our rearview (i.e., our past) as we drive into the future (a highway, also linear). In other words, we need to remember our past - the lessons we learn, ideas about how to restore past landscapes, etc. - in order to move forward into the future. It reminded me of Julie Cruikshank's book "Life Lived Like a Story", which details the life stories of three Tagish/Tlingit elder women. One woman, Angela Sidney, said, "I have tried to live my life right, just like the story". In other words, she is living in the present, in the now, using the model of a traditional story from the past. So, M's use of the rearview mirror as a way to envision the future works for me.

Alternatively, instead of seeing time as linear, indigenous peoples see time as circular. The National Museum of the American Indian has posted 13 audio recordings of Native American people talking about their communities' concepts of time. I haven't had a chance to listen to all the interviews (criminy, the tyranny of time) but two of them, by Kathy Sanchez and Jerome Kills Small, talk about the importance of living in the present. When several people asked me how indigenous people envisioned the future, I couldn't answer them because I had never read anything that talked about their conceptions of "future", other than the idea that time is circular and that there's an idea that, for Native Americans, they continually revisit things that happened in the past. In other words, think about our seasons: fall, winter, spring, summer. They expect that this cycle will continually repeat itself. I've heard that some people liken Native American conceptions of time as a spiral - that as we approach the same segment of the circle that we refer to as winter, we expect that we will be reliving the winter that we experienced before. We understand that there will be some changes (hence the symbol of a spiral - each level of the spiral is slightly different than the levels on either side of it). But time is circular.

M's rearview mirror uses the idea of traveling along a road - with the past behind us and the future in front of us - which is linear. But what if we choose to think about future time as continually revisiting our past; it's not quite the same past, but there are enough similarities to recognize that we've been here before and there are differences and new possibilities. Change is inevitable. But revisiting our past allows us to anchor ourselves in the world. It reminds us of who we are so that we can go to the next level.

Maybe this is a metaphor that we can use for envisioning the future.

As for the practical syllogism, I'm going to ask Renee's help to see how looking at this western way of "practical reasoning", which seems linear to me, might be conceptualized from an indigenous standpoint that might not necessarily be linear . . . hmmm, I'm not making sense. I guess what I'm getting at is whether these "practical syllogisms" exist within an indigenous ontological and epistemological worldview. Oh, Renee?? Are you there? Can you help me out here? Thanks, girlfriend!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The spiral concept strikes a cord for me. Starhawk in her book "Spiral Dance" talks about this and the spiral dance. Paula Gunn Allen in one of her books, "Grandmothers of the Light" likens the similarities between ancient Celtic tradition and Native American. Her heritage is Laguna Pueblo and Celtic. Time being circular rather than linear seems to be more logical, although there may be an argument for both concepts. I like the analogy of "Dragon Eyes". Nice.