Monday, November 11, 2013

MTA Membranes

NB: All numbers refer to pages in Jesper Hoffmeyer, Biosemiotics, Chicago: U. of Scranton Press, 2008.

You’ve made it this far and all you can do now if you want to maintain or improve or prevent catastrophe to your mental state is wrap that bubble right around you and close it off. Put your arms akimbo a bit more than necessary, stick a foot to the side "for balance", take the whole pole. Glare, or smile, brazenly. Earbuds, Beats, Bose, Skullcandy - get the music flowing any way you can. (A white line and two white dots in the ears were the symbol of selfhood a few years back; the scene has again diversified.) Sunglasses or pseudo-sleep, recreate the sensory environment to suite your interests. Draw into yourself, whether you are pissed off at the world, at peace with it, needing to 'keep it real', or having the Best Day Ever.

 via Gothamist/Shawn Ferreyra

Like so many amoebas we pack the subway cars, struggling to keep the membrane closed that protects us from the outside world and contains us. 

There was a man on the Q train into Brooklyn, a normal looking man in the scheme of things, but out cold, spreadeagle on his back on the floor in the middle of the car. No one could tell if he was alive or dead or dead drunk - he was poked and prodded, laughed at and scorned - until finally he let out an epic snore.

Most of us are not quite so successful at closing off the outside world - we are forced to continually acknowledge it, even if it's a crowded NYC subway and we'd rather not. Yet "this outward reference rests upon a corresponding inward reference, such that one could say that other-reference presupposes self-reference," and "because my experience of the self is necessarily an experience of a kind of corporeality, it can not be separated from an experience of the other..." (26). This inside/outside asymmetry brings us back to ourselves, like it or not.

Hood down, scarf up - hidden away and lost in thought we suddenly feel something terrifying. A hand has touched ours on the pole we hang onto. Our membrane is punctured and the true membrane, the skin, is touched. Move the hand but how to react - it's summer/sweaty and gross, it's winter/a germ-ridden nightmare, and either way that shouldn't have happened - hand to hand is a lover's touch or a friendly reassurance, a sign of hope and desired connectedness, it's not a random thing to just have happen. "The organizing principle of the membrane...the semiotic bridge" (29) has been breached, thrown out of whack. How to react?

"The skin keeps the world away in a physical sense but present in a psychological senseBut the very fact that the world can be felt is already a complex phenomenon that doesn't just presuppose that there are receptors...but also that biological meanings are assigned to these sensations." (18-19) "The generation of meaning starts in the skin many milliseconds before the brain brings forth a conscious interpretation." (23) The chain of reaction is a procession of semiotic relations, triads, one into another, stereognosis, memory, context...resulting in a final interpretant, our "sudden" reaction - whether it's pleasure or pain, disgust or...nothing, and we unconsciously move our own hand away.

In the end, we must remind ourselves (as we do anyway, to bring ourselves to board the subway day after day), that "to complete the evolution into a true living system, the autocatalytic system's proto-membrane would need to develop into an actual interface...There must, in other words, be established a feedback loop between the system of other-reference (the membrane system) and the system of self-reference (RNA, DNA)." Whether we ride the subway wrapped in a membrane of the glee of tourists (hi mom!) or the misery of a cursed Macbeth, the experience aids our process of individuation - our "semipermeable membrane closes itself upon itself and thenceforth connects its continuing existence to a partially trapped, autocatalytic, and agentive self-existing system." (37)

Even when the b-boys bump up the jams and bust it out, backflipping in your face - during rush hour.

via Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times


M. said...

I really enjoyed this post. I like the way you bring Hoffmeyer's discussion of skin as influencing our idea of personhood and boundaries between the inside and outside, into the setting of subway, where these issues are present on so many different levels.

Brett Ostrum said...

Does anyone else have the experience that their "membrane" (or personal bubble) expands or contracts depending on the subway environment? If the car is almost empty, my membrane doesn't stop at my skin. It ends a few inches from my body and anything I am holding, like my backpack. If the car is crowded, the membrane contracts closer to my skin, and I don't mind having people brushing up against me/my stuff quite so much. My reactions to others crossing this barrier changes depending on the environment too. If someone accidentally touches me in a crowded car I dismiss it quickly and it doesn't bother me. If, however, someone crossed the membrane in an almost empty car I would be much more uncomfortable.

Peter Macfarlane said...

The extent of people's bubble is always an interesting thing to watch on the subway. In general people do not talk to strangers on the subway unless it is to offer directions. One exception I saw the other day was that people are much more willing to talk to others when they are in costume (a Gandolf I saw at 42nd street). This was on a weekend night so the people breaking through the membrane could easily have not been regular subway users.