18 February 2013

Reflections: Percept and Perceived

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 9:50 am

[This post was stimulated by Levi Bryant’s recent post entitled I Guess My Ontology Ain’t So Flat. I wrote a series of preliminary responses to that thread on a related 4-year-old Ktismatics post called Eclipse as Object, beginning with comment 15. Now I’m summarizing more generally my views on the subject.]

The reality of a rainbow is effectively the same as anything else that can be perceived visually. Light reflects off the surfaces — raindrops suspended in air, the fur of the cat, the mountain range, the branches and needles of a pine tree — onto the surface of the eye. There are cells in the retina that respond to light within specific frequency bands; there are other cells that respond to the contours of contrast demarcating edges between differences in luminance; others detect changes in light intensity over very short time intervals. The light causes chemical changes to occur in the retinal cells; these chemical changes are passed synaptically along to other cells in the eye, the raw sensory information being sequentially pre-processed before being sent on for final processing in the brain. A lot of signal consolidation occurs in each eye, the signal being reinforced by redundant information while noise is eliminated, so that the information from 100 million retinal cells can be channeled through the 1.7 million cells of the optic nerve to the visual cortex. In the brain the discrete chemical signals of visual information from both eyes are assembled into larger perceptual units that combine information about the light detected in the environment: edges and expanses, colors and intensities. A 3-D perceptual array is assembled that constitutes the brain’s best guess about how this information maps onto the ambient 3-D environmental array of objects, spaces, and motion.

Direct or Indirect Perception? The details of how all this works at the level of cells, synapses, and neural networks are still being worked out. Still, visual perception has been the subject of scientific study for more than a hundred years, with the general contours being well established by data. Among neuroscientists who generally agree about the findings there is an ongoing debate about whether visual perception is “direct.” This debate hinges on two broad questions:

(1) Bottom-Up or Top-Down? Does the brain operate bottom-up, automatically and instinctively, in assembling optical signals into a perceived environment; or does the brain make top-down inferences about how to reassemble the optic information based on experiential knowledge and memory and expectation? There is no longer any doubt that vision involves both bottom-up and top-down processing of information. I look at the smear of dark green mottled with black on the mountainside and I see a forest. I could walk up the incline to confirm my visual hypothesis, watching as I approach the patterns of color articulate themselves into discrete trees. Still, when I look from a distance at a mountainside I’ve never observed before I can still immediately see the forest without even seeing the trees or consciously thinking about forests. It’s possible that my neural system is hard-wired via evolution to detect forests with no top-down inferences required. There is also no question that even bottom-up vision entails the extraction, transmission, processing, and assembly of light frequencies and intensities, re-presenting the invariants of the ambient optic array into percepts of the environment. In other words, even if I perceive directly I never see anything as itself; I always see only the light reflected from surfaces. Even a bottom-up percept entails a series of transformations or re-presentations of the raw light input, though the representation is constructed neurochemically rather than conceptually or linguistically.

(2) The World Itself or a Simulation? Does the brain assemble a visual simulation of the optical environmental array, a simulation that is “watched” by the observer inside the head; or does the observer watch the environment itself by means of the elaborate on-board neurochemical and electrical apparatus of the visual perception system? Certainly the environment doesn’t “look like” what we see: light within a certain bandwidth isn’t intrinsically green. The tree also reflects light at many frequencies undetectable by the retinal cells, so the perceived tree is a stripped-down version of the optical information afforded by the tree itself.

But if the visual system preserves environmental information about light frequency and intensity and edges such that an observer’s perception maps reliably onto that environmental information, isn’t it plausible to contend that the observer sees the thing that’s reflecting the light — a pine tree, say — rather than just a simulation of that tree? It’s a tricky problem, not easily decided by data. If I look through a telescope at a pine tree on the mountainside, am I still looking at the tree? If I attach a telescopic lens to my videocamera, feed the video image into my computer, and watch the video of the tree on my computer screen, am I still looking at the tree? The organic and the mechanical re-presentations both preserve light and edge information generated by the tree itself. There is a short but measurable delay in watching the video of the tree compared to looking directly at the mountainside — but there is also a short but measurable delay in the neural system’s processing of light information that hits the retina. And what about sound: even if we could process auditory information instantaneously (which we cannot), there is a delay in the world between the sound of the buzz-saw cutting down the tree we’re watching and the sound waves generated by the saw finally propagating themselves to where our ears can pick up the signal. Does this sound delay mean that we’re hearing not the saw but only the sound waves in the air immediately surrounding our ears?

Percept as Object. Is the visual percept of a pine tree the same thing as the pine tree? No: the percept is the result of a series of neurochemical and electrical transformations of light reflected off the surfaces of the tree. But is the visual percept of a tree a discrete object, distinct from the tree? I don’t know; it depends on what an “object” is. A visual percept is the continually-updated processing of light information generated by a structured array of neural cells. So does that make the percept an energy flow rather than a material thing? But the living tree is itself the continually-updated processing of cellular activity, and most of us are prepared to regard a tree as an object. It’s theoretically possible to capture the perceptual output at a specific point in time, following a discrete refreshing of the signal — sort of like a freeze-frame from a movie, or a chopped-down tree. Is that frozen percept, an output extracted from the process that generated it, an object? Sure: its properties and structure, the informational array it embodies, exists in its own right.

But a percept of the tree is a percept of the tree. Perception preserves specific invariant properties of the environment — the light reflected from surfaces. From this optical information the perceptual system reconstructs a 3-D assemblage of the environment — things and their positions relative to each other, their movements and the spaces between them — that generated the patterns of light detected by the retina. Vision is for navigating safely through the environment. From the perceiver’s point of view, the more accurate the visual reconstruction of the environment the better, especially when it comes to identifying environmental affordances that are particularly salient to the organism: sources of danger, sources of food, places to hide or to find shelter, mating opportunities. To objectify the percept in isolation from the thing perceived and from the perceiver is to isolate the percept from its function, from the processes that generate it, from the informational invariants it preserves through these processes, and from its internal and external relations. This sort of objectification can be done, but it demands that the observer perform an intentional work of abstraction.



  1. Great post. I was actually moved to comment on Levi’s post, encouraging him to expand upon his ideas about the physical reality of ideas (thoughts, percepts, etc.).

    I especially like the last bit here about separating the percept from its function. In a sense, the language that refers to “the processes that generate [a percept]” has already objectified it to some extent, because the percept is just the process itself.

    Interesting thoughts, too, arise from the distinction between bottom-up and top-down operation. I would say that even top-down operations in the brain are somewhat bottom-up. In some examples, information is very much pared down by the time it hits, say, the frontal cortex — like a tournament chart reducing to the winner. Then a signal is sent that expands and branches out to many brain areas. But in any of these operations, a huge number of individual neurons are involved. The terms “top-down” and “bottom-up” can be a little misleading in this context, since there is no real change in the “mode” of processing taking place.


    Comment by Asher Kay — 18 February 2013 @ 11:23 am

  2. “the percept is just the process itself”

    I thought about writing it that way, but those who believe the percept to be a simulation that’s somehow being watched by the perceiver would regard the process as output. This dispute isn’t settled yet, but I’m on your side in this disagreement. I am perceiving the world “directly” through the perceptual apparatus; I am not watching a real-time movie of the world running inside my head.

    I agree about “top-down,” Asher: as a generally accepted shorthand for knowledge- and experience-based perception the term collapses some important information. Certainly we’re in agreement that ordinary visual representation doesn’t require conscious conceptual-linguistic mediation to understand what we’re looking at. Even if at some point we had to learn what a pine tree is, that knowledge is compiled and automatized by now, obviating the need for slowed-down conscious attention to figure out what we’re looking at. If we wanted to determine whether it’s a loblolly or some other species of pine we would have to slow down, scrutinize features of the needles or cones or whatever it is one must attend to in making that sort of distinction. But there seems to be some assumption on the part of our philosophically inclined chums to regard “representation” as mediated by concepts and language, whereas for visual perception 99.99% of the representation occurs without words or concepts.

    I see on your Larval comment that you were exploring the realities of fictions. I might take that subject on next, since I too am curious about the reality of the imaginary worlds and characters with whom I spend so much of my time and in whose interests I work.


    Comment by ktismatics — 18 February 2013 @ 12:14 pm

  3. “If this new theory is correct, the term representation is misleading. There is no such thing as a literal re-presentation of an earlier optic array. The scene cannot be reestablished; the array cannot be reconstituted. Some of its invariants can be preserved, but that is all… The efforts made by philosophers and psychologists to clarify what is meant by a representation have failed, it seems to me, because the concept is wrong. A picture is not an imitation of past seeing. It is not a substitute for going back and looking again. What it records, registers, or consolidates is information, not sense data.” (JJ Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, 1979)

    Gibson is writing about photography here, but he argues that the same holds true for visual perception. The visual cortex uses not the raw sense data but the information it contains in order to construct from patterns of reflected light a 3-D view of the environment. So it’s representation not of the surfaces but of the objects to which those surfaces are attached, which requires far more intricate computation than merely re-presenting the sense data in the brain.


    Comment by ktismatics — 18 February 2013 @ 1:20 pm

  4. Yes to that. I agree with Gibson and with your extension of him to the domain of perception in general.

    I’m noticing a couple of distinctions that I tend to be a little over-zealous about:

    1. top-down/bottom-up. You obviously understand that the processes involved aren’t different in kind. Many who look at the distinction, though, end up sort of homuncularizing the conscious, executive process, which can lead to a lot of category-type problems.

    2. The distinction between “state” and “process”. A lot of discussions see cognition as a kind of “mental state”, which I think captures only part of it. It’s easy to fall into a metaphor in which the brain is a bunch of lightbulbs, and when bulbs X, Y, and Z are lit, you’re thinking of your grandmother (or whatever). That makes it a lot easier to think of a thought as an “object”, but it’s not true to life. I always shun the term “materialism” in favor of “physicalism” for that reason. Processes that take place over time (and are not identical to past processes that we’d call “thinking of the same thing”) are hard to think of as “things”, but it ends up being a better way to think about it, in my opinion, because there *are* aspects that have to do with configuration/state. For example, you are not always thinking of your fictional characters, but there is a sort of latent statefulness in your brain that makes that process available. Just like the “compiled and automatized” pine tree.

    I have probably mentioned this before, but I find it useful to think of consciousness as being a sort of sensory apparatus whose object is brain activity. When I think of it this way, consciousness seems less problematic. The visual system is stimulated by visible radiation, manipulates it, compresses it, categorizes it, and even sometimes feeds back onto itself in many overlapping processes. Consciousness does the same with what you might call the “results” of other brain activity.


    Comment by Asher Kay — 18 February 2013 @ 2:14 pm

  5. The homunculus is invoked implicitly in Metzinger when he writes about how the brain creates simulations of the environment, the body, and its own mental activity. The implication is that some other brain center is watching these simulations. Empirical evidence is converging on the idea that consciousness isn’t located in some particular part of the brain; rather, consciousness entails the coordination of multiple distributed functions that ordinarily function relatively autonomously of one another. I.e., consciousness is itself a distributed process rather than a locus or a state. I’m pretty sure we see eye to eye on this so to speak. Significantly, most of these questions — how vision, hearing, touch, etc. are combined into a real-time continuous 3-D subjective re-creation of the world useful for successfully navigating the environment — rely more on answering empirical questions than on philosophical speculations. So, e.g., here’s part of the abstract from a famous study by conducted by Meltzoff and Moore and published in a 1977 Science article:

    Infants between 12 and 21 days of age can imitate both facial and manual gestures; this behavior cannot be explained in terms of either conditioning or innate releasing mechanisms. Such imitation implies that human neonates can equate their own unseen behaviors with gestures they see others perform.

    Before this study it was assumed that the ability to imitate must be learned, but the empirical results strongly support the alternative proposition that at least some of this ability must be hard-wired. Here’s another one: JJ Gibson’s wife Eleanor found that 1-month-olds could recognize visually the shape and texture of objects that they explore with the mouth only — evidence for the kind of multimodal coordination of different sensory inputs that would seem to require both learning and conscious attention to master.

    “consciousness as being a sort of sensory apparatus whose object is brain activity”

    I understand the similarity of processing you describe between consciousness and unconscious perception, but I have a hard time with the “sensory” part. Are you saying that, since brain activation is itself as physical a process as is the light reflected from objects in the environment, then the ability to detect brain activity and to extract information from it is like a perceptual modality directed inward rather than outward? That’s pretty good, and arguably fits with the empirical findings. Just as vision is a function useful for exploring the external environment, consciousness is a function useful for exploring the internal environment. And just as vision might prompt the organism to take particular actions in the environment, so too might consciousness prompt the organism to initiate voluntarily particular mental activities. I.e., consciousness need not merely be a passive observer, like Metzinger seems to think. It’s a survival tool, just like vision and locomotion.


    Comment by ktismatics — 18 February 2013 @ 3:36 pm

  6. “Are you saying that, since brain activation is itself as physical a process as is the light reflected from objects in the environment, then the ability to detect brain activity and to extract information from it is like a perceptual modality directed inward rather than outward?”

    Exactly — and nicely stated, too. The idea comes from information theory — “patterned” input is patterned by consistency (which is really just the absence of a bunch of possibilities that, if present, would make it not information at all, but noise). The very outer edge of our visual apparatus is a method for encoding patterned frequencies of the light that hit it in a way that the next stage in the process can do something with. Consciousness knows how to do something with internal signals that are the result of processing that has already encoded, re-encoded, extracted, separated, generalized, categorized, abbreviated, etc., etc.

    “consciousness entails the coordination of multiple distributed functions that ordinarily function relatively autonomously of one another”

    This reminds me of Edelman’s take, and I think it also works well with the consciousness-as-internal-sensory-system metaphor. There are newer, expanded parts of our brains that seem necessary for symbolic processing, third- and fourth-level perspective taking, etc.. but like all sensory systems, there’s an amazing amount of overlap and re-use that makes it both easy and difficult to think of the brain as “modular”.

    It’s difficult in the sense that there’s no simple way to localize processes (as in, “this part of the brain does X”). But it’s easy in the sense that a “module” (circuit?) that performs a particular function could be used to perform that function on multiple types of information. So a circuit for “differentiation” could differentiate both visual and symbolic information (to use a totally made-up example), assuming that the “input” information to it is encoded in a similar way. And a lot of the processing that’s done on visual information can be seen as re-encoding the visual information so that it can be processed by the next module — so an “object detection” module needs information already encoded into a particular “format” by an “edge detection” module.

    I’ve heard the term “seat of consciousness”, and it always seems funny to me, because it looks like consciousness doesn’t tend to sit still.


    Comment by Asher Kay — 18 February 2013 @ 5:57 pm

  7. but it demands that the observer perform an intentional work of abstraction.

    You misunderstood. What is performed here is an act of PRIVILEGING. The cat privileges the tree; but she wants to have both withdrawal and relation, so she allows for the perception of beauty, although not beauty itself. Beauty itself is too subjective, too aesthetic for the cat. She already has trouble finding the right colors for her blawg.


    Comment by Center of Parody — 18 February 2013 @ 8:01 pm

  8. Looking at L.B.’s post there is much in it that is reminiscent of John Locke. Indo/Exo = Primary and Secondary; Material Continuum = Corpuscular theory. His no rainbows before eyes to see them is clearly false. There was water vapour which has a refractive index and light which has a spectrum. Put the two together and you must have a rainbow. The distinction between the primary or ‘real’ attributes and the secondary or observer related ones breaks down under analysis. Was there beauty before humans with an aesthetic sense? Arguably yes given that those notes that underlie that judgement have always been present i.e. order, design, pattern, what Bacon called utility and commodity, Fibonacci numbers etc., etc. Beauty is cellular not just skin deep.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 19 February 2013 @ 4:09 pm

  9. I agree that rainbows exist independently of any observer, for the reasons you elucidate, Michael. I also agree that the qualities of rainbows that people deem beautiful exist independently of observers. On the other hand, I agree with Levi that beauty appears in the interaction between the beautiful thing and its qualities on the one hand and the aesthetic sensibilities of the observer on the other.

    It seems plausible, though, that humans find rainbows intrinsically beautiful even without having to make any sort of conscious aesthetic judgment — that it’s an instinctive appreciation. Is there is some sort of survival value to aesthetic appreciation, or is aesthetics epiphenonenal? Order, design, pattern, symmetry, circularity, colorfulness — would humans who were attracted to these features of the environment have been more likely to survive than those who were indifferent or repulsed by these qualities? Maybe that’s what you mean by “utility and commodity,” terms with which I’m unfamiliar in this context. Almost surely there’s survival value in aesthetics of taste and smell and touch; why not also sight and sound? Certainly the conditions that produce a rainbow are attractive: almost invariably it’s a sign that the rain is about to end, making it safer to go outside again: less danger of being swept away, hit by lightning, blinded by water in the eyes when fleeing predators, etc. The promise of safety in the rainbow is even Biblical:

    And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud: And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth. And God said unto Noah, This is the token of the covenant, which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth. (Genesis 9:12-17, King James Version)


    Comment by ktismatics — 19 February 2013 @ 8:13 pm

  10. Presumably there could be a coming-into-self-awareness aspect to the universe, which includes not only an awareness of what things are, how they work, and how they fit together, but also an awareness of their intrinsic beauty. This would be a gnostic or hermetic view, would it not?


    Comment by ktismatics — 20 February 2013 @ 6:52 am

  11. Yes Hermetic, as above so below, but it is only in the human world that ugliness can enter in and … your cue Dylan:


    The force that through the green fuse drives the flower 
    Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees 
    Is my destroyer. 
    And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose 
    My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 20 February 2013 @ 3:38 pm

  12. But are rainbows and waterfalls intrinsically beautiful just because I find them so? I don’t believe it for a minute, and don’t care if they were before people saw them, they can live their own lives with or without appreciation. I also find beautiful when I’ve managed to get some really hard, seemingly impossible work done, work that I was sure I couldn’t get done. And maybe after a certain age, you should find such things more beautiful than rainbows. Now, I’m not going to do a post on the non-waterfall work as I did the one in Haiti which I was planning to see in 1995, then got scared off, but I don’t find that waterfall more beautiful than getting some really thorny thing well on its way. Nobody else could find that beautiful, just some result that might come from it. I don’t like talk of beauty, and what it is. Mortimer Adler said ‘a beautiful woman’ could be beautiful if you thought her face was, etc., but not if you had carnal desires, oh no, those weren’t ‘beauty’. Probably because he was sitting right next to that fake Blackfoot Indian who was so gorgeous that he got all kinds of jobs lying about it, till that odious —-‘– Susan Sontag ‘outed him’ as the ‘fag-git modern dancer who was 13 years younger than he said and was Greek’.

    Who cares if the rainbow was beautiful before anybody saw it? Unless IT knew it. I adore rainbows and think they’re beautiful, but not more than beautiful cocks. I’ve had it with this sort of thing, and all talk of ‘beauty’ gets round to it. I was pleased to put up the sacred voodoo waterfall at Ville Bonheur, though. It now turns out that the Holiday Inn I was going to stay in in Port-au-Prince was not damaged in the earthquake, but is right across the street from one of the biggest tent cities. But it’s HAITI that is the only place that inspires my wanderlust again. Although it would be devastating, much more than when I didn’t go before, and people coming in from the airport talk about endless stench and horror. But Haiti’s got charisma, but getting out in a jeep to the waterfall would be hard, although some girl filmmaker did it and made one of those touching docus, I guess.

    It’s easier to understand when you take works of art. Not everybody thinks the 9th Symphony of Beethoven is beautiful, although it’s hard for me to see why not. But it wouldn’t freak anybody out the way saying ‘I don’t like rainbows’ would. Who says a flower is beautiful/ I used to grow them on my roof right here in Manhattan, big beds of them, and I much prefer as ‘beauty’ some of the misbehaviours I’ve produced at questionable places. ‘Physical pleasure’, for example, is not supposed to be ‘beauty’ the way poetry or the Bach B Minor Mass is. But it is. It’s obviously much more beautiful to some of us, based on frequency of interaction. I can’t believe people get paid for such crocks of shit, even ‘nickland’s’ new crap about ‘wonderfully-working Singapore’ is at least vaguely quirky, though hideous, and he knows nobody’s going to pay him for it.


    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 20 February 2013 @ 4:55 pm

    • “13 years younger than he said”

      I meant 13 years older than he said, of course. A real Indian, Hank Adams, who also ‘outed him’, and I corresponded with briefly, called him a ‘Debra Paget’, a hilarious choice of 50s ingenues.


      Comment by Patrick Mullins — 20 February 2013 @ 4:57 pm

  13. Debra Paget? Unknown to me, but I suppose that’s the point.


    Comment by ktismatics — 20 February 2013 @ 6:53 pm

    • She was famous for this silly tropical thing ‘Bird of Paradise’, I think jumps into a volcano. That Indian Mr. Adams knowing about Debra Paget was very strange. He had met Mr. Highwater (who was adopted by his old ‘tribe’ and then thrown out, defended thereafter only by the likes of Ashley Montague) once, and although he called him ‘an evil man’, he did say ‘he was gorgeous’, and this was no homo (although Highwater decidedly was.) The Sontag outing came because, when he decided to exploit the fake Indian intellecfual thing, getting amazing jobs in all disciplines at Columbia, NYU, just everywhere, even setting up a Native Land Foundation in Ct., but that went under and he went back to LA where nobody would care any more than they do about Zsa Zsa’s adopted fake princelings–he always wanted to drop Sontag’s name as a ‘close friend’, and she was not interested. Part of it was that his real name was Jack Marks, and he may or may not have been adopted (he claimed to be.). I’ve never been sure about that, but Sontag said, in the early 90s, I believe, although the outing was already going on “Yes, I did know a Jack Marks when we were both at Hollywood High, but as for the person who calls himself Jamake Highwater, I wouldn’t believe a thing he said!”. He wrote all these books for junior high age about Indians, and got away with it for the longest time. The series on PBS with Mortimer adler was hosted by Bill Moyers. He had been close with Joseph Campbell, but I don’t know how long that lasted, or whether Campbell was still alive. I knew someone else who knew him, and I called him after seeing him on 8th Street about 1988 and he really was almost more handsome than is humanly possible (Paget was more funny than accurate, he was up there with Garbo in looks), and the friend said, as I was almost sure he would, “Well, you know, most of what he does is just a ‘number’, like somebody would do in a bar”. But I never saw anybody take it so far into the mainstream circles before kicking booted out by most of them. I wrote him a few times in the late 80s, that was when he was still considered ‘Eagle Son’ by some of the Blackfoot Nation. He was stripped of this later. He had just written a weird little collection about famous people called ‘Shadow Show’, and man, was it BAD. I thought it amazing he would be so jealous of Tom Jones, whom he’s most disparaging about, and seems to have had a failed affair with Linda Eastman, Paul McCartney’s late wife. He wrote a tacky flirtation of a flutist friend of mine in there too, this was very embarassing and the flutist is now quite gross and porcine, but I never saw the charm that way anyway It was an interesting case. I don’t think it would be possible in academia anymore, although actors lie like that all the time.


      Comment by Patrick Mullins — 20 February 2013 @ 7:37 pm

  14. Patrick as I noted ugliness enters with the human as strictly by the tenets of polar conceptualisation you can’t have beauty without ugliness. Beauty as a unitary or monistic concept is a metaphysical position. Anyway Highwater aka Pissing-On-Legs is an amusing character in one way but also a malign index of the acceptance of the stereotype. ‘Print the Legend’. A blogger called Dancing Badger (please note not Dancing-With-Badgers, he’s the other one) has written extensively about Jack ‘on your’Marks.
    Grey Owl is an intermediate figure in the annals of fake. I hope Lobsang Rampa was a good plumber he certainly wasn’t a Tibetan Lama.

    I said to herself I should set up a lot of beehive huts in the field and pass myself off as an ascended Swami and make lots of money on meditation courses. Then not far away an Englishwoman bought 11 acres and built a Newgrange, druid’s seat, a maze, wicker work swings etc. The apotheoisis of Twee. One good thing is that there are loads of trees planted and a nice pond dug which will outlast the themery.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 21 February 2013 @ 2:34 am

  15. Maybe you could claim to be a Fakir.

    Marks reminds me of Ward Churchill, former chair of Ethnic Studies here at the U. of Colorado, famously fired for plagiarism after pissing off the Board of Trustees for publicly asserting that the 9/11 victims in the Towers deserved what they got. His claims to Indian ancestry are also nebulous at best, but it violates fair labor practice to fire someone for racial or ethnic reasons. That seems right to me: why must someone have Indian blood to be a spokesman or activist on Indian affairs? Even if he claims to be Indian himself? Why not: as we learned from Absalom Absalom, race is as much cultural and psychological as biological. Plenty of biological men regard themselves as women and vice versa. It doesn’t sound as though Marks presented Native American culture in a particularly favorable light, but then again there’s a legitimately homeless panhandling blogger here in Boulder who regards his homeless brethren generally as filthy drunken idjit spongers.


    Comment by ktismatics — 21 February 2013 @ 7:15 am

  16. A lot of white Americans claim some Indian blood. Anne’s paternal grandmother believed that her own grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee. She even wrote a song about it: “Sam and Abby they were sweethearts…” she would begin, accompanying her Carter-Family vocal stylings on mandolin or guitar or piano, whatever instrument was handy. According to the lyric Abby was a family maid, and thus a forbidden love for Sam on the grounds of both race and class. Recently Anne’s father had the DNA test, according to which he has no Indian blood whatever. At least one member of the family refuses to accept the scientific validity of the test.


    Comment by ktismatics — 21 February 2013 @ 8:23 am

  17. John,
    There is an element of identity theft in those cases. Grey Owl was respected for his conservation work and he really did know about the Indian culture and folkways however he got too deeply into his role in the best method manner and passed himself off as:

    “The publisher feels that a short foreword is necessary in offering this book to the public.It should be explained that the author is a half-breed Indian, whose name has recently become known throughout the English-speaking world. His father was a Scot, his mother an Apache Indian of New Mexico, and he was born somewhere near the Rio Grande forty odd years ago. Grey Owl is the translation of his Red Indian name, given to him when he became a blood brother of the Ojibways, and his proper legal style.”

    The book The Men of the Last Frontier looks like a good read in that high inflated style which I like and occasionally succumb to.

    Here at the Dublin Business School a sort of MBA hatchery a teacher was found to have forged credentials. It was embarrassing as he was their star. Another staff member said ‘we suspected nothing but there was one odd thing, he always insisted on being addressed by the title Dr.’


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 21 February 2013 @ 10:36 am

  18. That seems right to me: why must someone have Indian blood to be a spokesman or activist on Indian affairs? Even if he claims to be Indian himself?

    He should not have to have Indian blood to be a spokesman, activist, etc., but he is insane and shouldn’t be allowed to be paid attention to if he claimes to BE Indian without having Indian blood. You take it too far on that, I think. Men can ‘feel like women’, and vice versa, as you note, but they ‘aren’t quite’. And that’s more emotional.

    And we know of any number of bleugers who speak only for black people (or ‘people of colour’, that idiot term), but nevertheless claim to be Jewish (as well they should.) It would be ridiculous if they went around talking about how “I feel so White Negro”, or what have you. After all, most of it’s ridiculous enough even claiming semitism.

    Ward Churchill was quite objectionable. Reminds me a bit of Marks, more of someone else whose heavy into fakirism.


    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 21 February 2013 @ 5:37 pm

    • Rather Marks reminds me of someone else, which is strange, because I know what that person looks like, and yet I always get an inner mental image of Marks when I think of some of his pain inventions. They all have some of that in common.


      Comment by Patrick Mullins — 21 February 2013 @ 5:41 pm

  19. Wiki entry on Mexico:

    A study by the National Institute of Genomic Medicine, Mexico reported that Mestizo Mexicans are 58.96% European, 35.05% “Asian” (Amerindian), and 5.03% African. Sonora shows the highest European contribution (70.63%) and Guerrero the lowest (51.98%) where we also observe the highest Asian contribution (37.17%). African contribution ranges from 2.8% in Sonora to 11.13% in Veracruz. 80% of the Mexican population was classed as mestizo (defined as “being racially mixed in some degree”).

    In May 2009, Mexico’s National Institute of Genomic Medicine issued a report on a genomic study of 300 mestizos from the states of Guerrero, Sonora, Veracruz, Yucatán, Zacatecas, and Guanajuato. The study found that the Mestizo population of these Mexican states were on average 55% of indigenous ancestry followed by 41.8% of European, 1.8% of African, and 1.2% of East Asian ancestry. The study also noted that whereas Mestizo individuals from the southern state of Guerrero showed on average 66% of indigenous ancestry, those from the northern state of Sonora displayed about 61.6% European ancestry. The study found that there was an increase in indigenous ancestry as one traveled towards to the Southern states in Mexico, while the indigenous ancestry declined as one traveled to the Northern states in the country, such as Sonora.

    Such a different settlement pattern compared to the US.


    Comment by ktismatics — 21 February 2013 @ 8:50 pm

  20. Michael–interested that you knew about this. I looked and had read both articles, probably some 7 years ago, and got some of them mixed up. Now even ‘Dancing Badger’ rings a bell from the time I read these. When you said ‘blogger’, I automatically thought of something more recent, I guess HE is the one who said ‘Debra Paget’ and ‘Oh well’, but I wrote Hank Adams. He had wanted me to try to look at those archives so carefully protecting Marks’s ‘legacy’ at the NYPL, but I had no entree for this. He said he was not physically able to come here and do it. I don’t know if he’s still alive, and there hadn’t been reason to stay in touch.

    As the story was beginning to surface, he was still pretty celebrated, that Moyers PBS thing was early 80s, and he also did a PBS ‘Primal Mind’. This had him shot solo going down porny 42nd St., trying to the ‘alien Indian’, i guess, although it only worked on the level he was really able to pull off (‘at one with Times Square’, etc, in jeans and ‘hey, look at me!’ It worked on that level, and you had to feel guilty yourself for it because you didn’t yet know the things coming out). And it’s true that he did know a lot about art, or did concentrate on it well enough to write and talk about it. I don’t know if it was that distinguished, but ‘Primal Mind’ had long sections in which he pointed to Indian paintings, and he would do all the narration in this rhapsodic singsong voice.

    I wrote him the oddest letter to his Native Land Institute, saying something about how he ‘withheld his Indianness’ from me–this was a definitely loooooonnng and slow cruise, although we were both too proud to stop. I doubt he knew who I was, but I did know that was him, and didn’t know yet he was fake; but I could tell he was dangerous. He then made the most elaborate WINK at me that I have ever seen, not exactly your soft-sell type. That look that Badger describes, the ‘well-preserved look of the wealthy and vain’, is sort of off, sort of on. The wealthy don’t always have it, the vain always try and often get it. He responded with an invitation to come up to this Native Land Institute in Hampden (?), I think it was, Connecticut. Well, not overt invitation, just all the materials and how to get there and ‘thank you so much, Mr. Mullins’. About a week later I read ‘Shadow Show’, and thought ‘Oh my god, who’ve I written to’, there is this particularly hideous ‘postlude’ in which he takes ‘Amadeus’ as being literal account of Mozart and Salieri, clearly all about his own already-in-the-works banishment, but not yet complete. Something about ‘the music lives on’. He probably didn’t even know that Salieri is not the villain he’s made out to be at all, and that’s a CHEAP movie if there ever was one (I guess the play is the same. I know all sorts of people who thoguht ‘how profound about the true artist’, but Peter Gay has straightened this matter out, among many others I’m sure. i recommend Peter Gay on almost anything, and his Mozart autobio is excellent.)

    I can’t think of anything more fitting as poetic justice than it being Susan Sontag to slam the Big Door on him, given the elaborate and twisted nature of his pathology. I do remember seeing the obituary in summer, 2001, in NYtimes, they got his age right from the beginning, though.

    I had also read some book from the 90s called ‘The Myth of Transgression: Homosexuality as Metaphor’, and wrote him another letter 10 years after the first. It was thoroughly outrageous and kept lecturing him about Adorno, for some reason. The ‘As Metaphor’ is clearly a Susan-ism, and I don’t think that’s the only time he used it. There were ALL sorts of people who thought knowing Susan Sontag even slightly was the most impressive social claim you could make. My God, I saw her so many times before knowing who she was (I later found out she lived in the penthouse of one of my piano teachers’ apts., and then the memory of that skunk streak of white in the hair, that she’d later start having put in her wigs, would come back.)

    I had read the Rollyson/Paddock book, but had gotten that mixed up with Shadow Show or Badger did. The discovery of the Lesbian teacher was definitely in Shadow Show. I read the Rollyson Paddock shortly after it came out, and it was informative but torture to read. I primarily remember that she managed to get residence in one of Sartre’s Paris apartments for awhile, and that for awhile, her ‘clientele’ was ‘almost exclusively French’.

    Those two definitely deserve each other, in my book. I guess what he did is far worse, but her arrogance may well outshine his, although she’s considered important by many (I think she was purely vain as well, and hate her work, or am just indifferent to it) I passed him once more in about 1989 on Hudson Street–he was like Raymond Chandler described Terry Lennox on finding him at last ‘dressed and perfumed like a fifty-dollar whore’. Sort of on permanent ‘friskiness-flirt mode’. I did agree with Badger that it was extraordinary that Montagu was forever a groupie, he who had once said those interesting things on Johnny Carson about his book The Superiority of Women. Maybe he thought Marks was the ultimate Superior Woman, for all I know.


    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 24 February 2013 @ 11:23 am

  21. Patrick and John,
    Only on St. Patrick’s Day does anyone claim to be a full blooded Irishman. The Cherokee seems to be the favoured tribe and also for the purposes of spirit communication the generic Red Indian Chief is only a planchette lurch away. Is there an inner Indian one asks.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 25 February 2013 @ 12:57 pm

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