Representation and the Senses

Our senses have been greatly diminished by our contemporary notion of representation. Much has changed in how we understand representation since its inception. The idea of representation was developed during ancient Greece time. Aristotle’s perspective encompassed each senses as a specific mode of representation, verbal, visual or musical, which are natural to human beings and necessary to our learning and to “being” in the world (Vukcevich, 2002)[i].

While Artistotle considered representation to be grounded in our senses, another perspective became dominant in western culture, which eventually lead to the suppression of our senses. Another Greek thinker, Parmenides of Elea believed our world to be a world of appearances in which one’s sensory faculties lead to conceptions that are false and deceitful. These ideas strongly influenced the whole of Western culture as they became essential to Plato’s perspective. Plato believed that representations create worlds of illusion leading one away from the “real things”(Hall, 1997)[ii]. Instead of understanding our “being” as constructed through our senses, Plato considered such representation as something that needed to be controlled and monitored due to the possible dangers resulting in its ability to foster antisocial emotions or encourage the imitation of evil (Mitchell, 1990)[iii].

With Plato, social norms began to replace our senses as central to our understanding of the world and ourselves, a perspective which opened the door to the colonization of our  sensorial “being” by the social values of the dominant group of the time.

As Plato’s notions propagated through our civilization, so did his ideas about representation and social order. As societies evolved, so did the need for control over flows of actions: ”The prime function incumbent on the socius, has always been to codify the flows of desire, to inscribe them, to record them, to see to it that no flows exists that is not properly damned up, channeled, regulated”(Deleuze and Guattari, 1994, p.33)[iv].

Sensory Life as a Female Domain to be Controlled and Dominated

At this time, another change took place, which removed the senses from our understanding of ourselves, the removal of female knowledge from thoughts. Until the age of Plato, women participated in healing practices. In very ancient Greece, 400 BCE, at the time of Hippocrates, one of the most famous ancient healers, women such as Artemisia were respected healers. One hundred years later however, Greek culture marked a significant departure from prior cultures by eliminated the importance of “females” in culture.

As a more patriarchal system of government and politics developed, women were increasingly restricted from every aspects of public life, including healing. Their main function became the reproduction of children, especially of sons. While all sons would be raised within the family, ordinarily only one daughter, at most, would be reared. The others would have a life of slavery, prostitution, or both (Pomeroy, 1975)[v].

Such a devaluation is clear in Plato’s Republic, in which women are considered degeneration from perfect human nature:

It is only males who are created directly by the gods and are given souls. Those who live rightly return to the stars, but those who are ‘cowards or [lead unrighteous lives] may with reason be supposed to have changed into the nature of women in the second generation’. This downward progress may continue through successive reincarnations unless reversed. In this situation, obviously it is only men who are complete human beings and can hope for ultimate fulfillment; the best a woman can hope for is to become a man” (Plato, Timaeus 90e)[vi].

By 300 BCE, women were no longer allowed to be practicing healers. For instance, Agnodice, an Athenian who wanted to be a doctor, could only do so disguised as a man.  These show a significant shift in thinking towards sensory life. Senses, like emotions, were and are still culturally understood as being female characteristics. As women’s knowledge began to be devalued in western society their importance was denied.

This principle was reinforced centuries later by Descartes’ famous sentence: “I think therefore I am”.  Descartes separated our body from our mind and turned us into thinkers who developed the scientific method of seeing the world and developing knowledge. We were to stop being in the world, watching it from our minds’ eye. We were to stop “sensing” and only accept reality that emerged from rational, demonstrable “facts”, thinking and objectification surpassed intuition and sensory knowledge.  We were to know instead of to be.

Ever since Descartes, western society has been plunged in a “Cartesian anxiety” (Bernstein, 1983), an examination of the world as separate from ourselves based on the use of scientific methods that should be able to lead us to a firm and unchanging knowledge of ourselves and the world around us. A culture that positioned our embodied sensory nature as a  “salvage” self, that needed to be disciplined and eradicated by the disembodied intellect.

Each on of us is exposed to many Cartesian representations of ourselves, via family, work, school and/or other important communities in our lives, all of which have been so far tied to specific physical spaces such as the home, school, church, etc. While our personal life may have been influenced by many different cultures, our society has a few cultures in common, the one accessible via and its myths.

From Being To Thinking Through Myths

This devaluation of the senses and emotions is very noticeable in the myths western society used to define and frame western understanding of spirituality and of ethical life. And in their place, control and codification of life became prevalent.

According to Joseph Campbell, mythology in most cultures is about reconciling the mind into the brutal precondition of all life, which lives by the killing and eating of lives.  Myths are where we can learn how to live an ethical life. Ancient spirituality integrated our senses. For instance, as Joseph Campbell explains in his book the “Power of Myth”, the Upanishads people of India realized in the ninth century B.C. that:

All the gods, all the heavens, all the worlds, are within us. They are magnified dreams, and dreams are manifestations in image form of the energies of the body in conflict with each other. That is what myth is. Myth is the manifestation in symbolic images, in metaphorical images, of the energies of the organs of the body in conflict with each other. This organ wants this, that organ wants that. The brain is one of these organs” (Campbell, 1988, 39)[vii].

The Greeks and later the Christians transformed myths from ethical messages regarding human existence into messages of territorialization of time, space and being, marking a shift towards values of control and colonization by force. Force became a weapon to develop instead of a dangerous natural condition to be balanced.

The same became true of knowledge. It became a rational tool to be developed instead of part of a bigger system of understanding that needed to be balanced. The goal of creating balance and harmony with “other” became replaced with the goal to overtake and control “other”. The will, replaced the need. Being became thinking and the self stopped being a united whole. In this process, the senses were eliminated from our notions of self.

Philip Sheperd (2010) building upon the work of Joseph Campbell’s work shows that our ancient myths had two primary themes, the polarity between male and female, and the other, the polarity between hero and tyrant.

These myths affirm that until the inner tyrant is ousted, there can be no true marriage within the male and female elements of the self.  The male element is associated with doing and the female with being and sensing. These two elements of the self -doing and being- unite in us to form a unity. Neither by itself can constitute an evolving whole. In mythological terms, the female element in each of us just is, at rest within the unfolding present – receiving, integrating, and massively connecting and communicating with all that is. The female represents the “felt self” and the male, the “known self”.

Ancient myths tell us that these two elements of the self -doing and being- unite in us to form a unity. Neither by itself can constitute an evolving whole. In mythological terms, the female element in each of us just is, at rest within the unfolding present – receiving, integrating, and massively connecting and communicating with all that is. The female represents the “felt self” and the male, the “known self”. With modern greek myths, identity became embedded within predefined schemas of our “objective knowledge”, instead of emergent out of our lived experiences and senses (Shepard, 2010)[viii].

Our self became an object to be possessed, conquered and controlled, instead of a subject that grows via its presence in the moment.  For Shepard, the dominance of the “know self” stopped us from being in the present as we increasingly grew impatient to assign rather than live meaning.

As we moved away from our embodied self, we began to develop systems of control to reshape how we understood the world and created a dualistic belief system focused on valuing “good” over  “evil”, male over female, fact over senses, pathology over difference, negating diversity.  We eliminated fluidity of the senses in favor of rigidity of the mind.

This is very evident in some of the most popular creation myth of the West, Adam and Eve. The departure from ancient traditions of a self formed by the joining of a male and female component is at the core of the differences between the “Adam and Eve” and “Adam and Lillith” myth.

The story of Adam and Eve reinforced the primacy of man and the centrality of his place in the universe, while making it clear that women play a subordinate role. Key to Christian culture, the story of Eve has provided men with reasons to restrain and restrict the social, sexual, religious, political, and economic freedom of women while also giving men the justification to hold women responsible for all the misfortunes suffered by mankind (Witcombe, 2013)[ix].

As Witcombe explains, the story contains largely negative “truths” about the nature of women. It perfected what Greek culture began: to diminish the female part of the self and cultural perspective in our meta-narratives. Eve represents everything about a woman a man should guard against. No matter what women might achieve in the world, the message of Genesis warns men not to trust them, and women not to trust themselves or each other.

This trend of women as “bad” does not start with Eve but with the myth of Lillith which can be found in many cultures. Lilith was Adam’s first wife. One story is that God created Adam and Lilith as twins joined together at the back. She demanded equality with Adam, failing to achieve it, she left him in anger. God then gave Adam the docile Eve and Lillith became a demon, in some stories considered the wife of Satan.

These stories have in common the rejection of the feminine as an equal. Looking closer at some of the symbols within the myth, the elimination of “natural knowledge” of a “felt self” in favor of the man constructed knowledge of the know self can be seen. The myth asked us to ignore that we exist within flesh and within nature and to repudiate natural and female knowledge, source of sensorial and carnal health.

In the story of Eve, the snake posses a devious form of cleverness described as “cunning”. The term is related to the female genitals, and refers to the source, of women’s learning, insight, wisdom and knowledge (literally “carnal knowledge”) (Witcombe, 2013).  But the snake can also be a symbol of rebirth, transformation, immortality, health and healing. In ancient Greece, the rod of Asclepius, the god of healing , was a snake-entwined staff that to this day remains a symbol of medicine.

The symbolism of the snake has multiple meaning some of which can shade some light on how HSP began to be ostracized from western culture by the denial of sensorial life, fluid time, space and being.

Campbell demonstrated that the snake in most cultures is given a positive interpretation. In India, the serpent represents the power of life engaged in the fields of time, death, yet eternally alive. Similarly, for the American aboriginal tribe of the Pueblos and the Hopi people, the snakes are used in sacred dances to carry human messages to the hills, and to bring humans messages from the hills. (Campbell, 1988, 46)

The snake in many cultures is also the symbol of life throwing off the past and continuing to live (Campbell, 1988, 45). The serpent has a double meaning, representing the cyclical nature of life. Sometimes the serpent is represented as a circle eating its own tail. Campbell saw this image at a societal representation of life. Life sheds one generation after another, to be born again. The serpent can also represent immortal energy and consciousness engaged in the field of time, constantly throwing off death and being born again. This representation of inner life, is essential to Highly Sensitive People, as it is a manifestation of a process of positive disintegration as we will see in chapter 3.

By demonizing the snake, it is our carnal health that has been denied. This marked the denial of the belief system that the Greek physician Hippocrates established, that the body healed itself, and the physician served to assist in the process. With the advent of Christianity, we were told through the Adam and Eve not to trust our ability to take care of ourselves and trust our lived experiences as valid forms of knowledge. This autonomy was replaced by obedience to an all knowing god and eventually dependence on the church for health matters.

With the Adam and Eve myth, the negative interpretation of the snake represents a refusal to affirm life. The power of life becomes a sin, it is corrupt, our natural impulses sinful unless they have been circumcised or baptized. The identification of the woman with sin, of the serpent with sin, and thus of life with sin, is the twist that has been given to the whole story in the biblical myth and doctrine of the fall.

In the case of Lillith, independence, autonomy, self-knowledge, personal voice, resilience and resisting male as dominant are considered demonic. In both Lillith and Eve’s cases, women are seen as untrustworthy, feminine and carnal and/or sensory knowledge as evil, dangerous, dirty and unhealthy.

By accepting these myths as religious truths, Western culture has denied life itself, our embodied self, cut off access to our ancestral embodied knowledge and paved the way for us to forget the language of our senses. These myths asked us to stop considering living in the moment, the present and freeze our “self” in a sanitized and disembodied image of ourselves. By accepting the snake as a negative icon, we agreed to forget how to be naturally healthy and how to heal ourselves. The “know self” became a “no voice”, a voice of criticism, denial and repression.

Eventually in time, we internalized these lessons and have taken over the no self. The no self is part of an internal mechanism of understanding that makes us doubt who we are and that makes us accept that our “difference” is not a unique gift but a disease to be cured. In some cases, the no self internally activates the rules of a hidden social curriculum and makes us accept external cultural forces as our internal truth, as being.

These cultural norms are also being reinforced in our modern myths, those accessible via mass media.

<< Our ancestors

[i] Vukcevich, M (2002). “Representation”, The University of Chicago.

[ii] Hall, Suart (1997). Cultural Representations and Signifying Practice, Open University Press, London.

[iii] Mitchell, William, T (1990). “Representation”, in F Lentricchia & T McLaughlin (eds), Critical Terms for Literary Study, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

[iv] Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix (1994). What is Philosophy? Continuum. Columbia University Press.

[v] Pomeroy, Sarah, B. (1975). Goddesses, whores, wives, and slaves: women in classical antiquity. Schocken Books.

[vi] Plato, Timaeus 90e, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0180%3Atext%3DTim.%3Asection%3D90e

[vii] Moyers, Bill and Campbell, Joseph (1988). The Power of Myth. Betty Sue Flowers (ed.). New York: Doubleday

[viii] Sheperd, Philip (2010). New Self, New World: Recovering Our Senses in the Twenty-First Century. North Atlantic Books

[ix] Witcombe, Christopher (2013). EVE and the identity of women. http://witcombe.sbc.edu/eve-women/



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