The Image of the Fish: Consciousness, Self, and Landscape
I’m wading up an anonymous creek in the Cascades Mountains of Oregon, a three-weight fly rod in my hand, casting an elk-hair caddis at a series of pools formed by old-growth logs that have plummeted across the bed. The creek is a series of stair steps up a fairly steep gradient. So my ascent is slow, careful--it might be arduous except for the pleasure of discovering pool after pool.
The fishing today is rewarding, though not elegant. I’m roll casting and dip fishing, plucking out wild cutthroat trout. Each pool offers up its signature fish, which struggles mightily for its size, diving and leaping, before succumbing to my hand.
As I release a fish and watch it vanish back into its environs, I have the distinct impression that what I’m actually catching--and actually keeping--is the image of the fish. And that each fish, exactly in the spot where I hooked it, constitutes a point on a transient map that I both create and inhabit. The map is transient not only because conditions will quickly change, but also because each event could have easily not occurred or could have occurred differently. Activity is highly variable; influencing factors are complex. Just ask any fisherman.
Still, it’s a good multifunctional map: it depicts, if incompletely, the distribution of cutthroat trout in a specific stream. It depicts, more completely, my experiential encounter with these fish on this particular day. It depicts a pattern I store in memory as to where such fish are likely to be found in the future. But moreover, the map of my contact with cutthroat trout depicts the mind that apprehends it.
I’ve been thinking about consciousness itself--always a tricky prospect, but lately I’m guided by an innovative neurologist, Antonio Damasio. In his book The Feeling of What Happens, Damasio describes the biological workings of human consciousness and our sense of self. He explains how consciousness and a sense of self arise as a means of mediating between the organism and the objects that affect it. One of the striking aspects of his complex account is his specialized definition of the term image. In his glossary he states: “A synonym for image is mental pattern.”
We commonly think of images as ocularly received from the environment and processed in the brain. But Damasio states that “There is no picture of the object being transferred from the object to the retina and from the retina to the brain. There is, rather, a set of correspondences between physical characteristics of the object and modes of reaction of the organism according to which an internally generated image is constructed.” Remember that, in Damasio’s terms, such an image is a mental pattern. These patterns are comprised of “dispositions” within the organism: potential physical responses in neurons and other body networks.
So two points intrigue me here on the creek. First, the idea that the physical specifics of the objects at hand--trout--have some sort of “correspondence” to the modes of reaction in the organism--me. I am internally of, with, and receptive to the world. My human consciousness, in this sense, doesn’t separate me from nature so much as it allows me a sophisticated access to nature.
Second, what I perceive either as objects or as representations of objects are not, to my consciousness, pictures so much as patterns, not fixed entities so much as a sequence of potential events within my body/brain networks. Given the stimulus of these particular objects--gorgeous fish!--my networks are disposed towards certain responses but can also operate in novel ways, within parameters. As Damasio writes, “Images allow us to choose among repertoires of previously available patterns . . . The ability to transform and combine images of actions and scenarios is the wellspring of creativity.”
For me, the implications of Damasio’s descriptions of consciousness are vital. They are powerfully innovative, but at the same time oddly familiar.
Many of Damasio’s findings are based on his extensive clinical experience with brain damaged or diseased patients. I have a special sympathy here, as both of my parents died young due to brain traumas. When I was seventeen years old, the same age as my daughter is now, my mother entered a coma caused by brain cancer. I visited her daily in that unfathomable state in the months before she died. As Damasio says, “Few things are as sad to watch as the sudden and forced disappearance of the conscious mind in someone who remains alive, and few things are as painful to explain to a family.”
My father, too, was visited with brain damage. A stroke deprived certain regions of his brain of blood-flow, and confined him to a wheelchair for the last nine years of his life. His memory and his speech were profoundly affected, but something more: his very sense of self seemed to change radically. This new person: how was I to receive him? It turned out that I liked him, actually, but I never got over the feeling that my father--that self who raised me--was gone forever.
So I’ve experienced, in those nearest to me, the self as lost before the literal loss of the person. That liminal state--coma or radical diminishment--has affected me greatly over the years. Occasionally I’ve experienced a disturbing slippage of my own sense of self, a bewildering struggle to grasp a stable identity. Or sometimes I’ll encourage a more controlled, healthy version of that same slippage. After all, the self can be oppressive, yes? So I might meditate in order to quiet the self’s insistence. Or I’ll simply go fishing, and find myself lost in the very beauty and wildness of the fish.
The fish is an image to me. It triggers networks of correspondence inside. These networks can be thought of as maps, as representations, in that they, according to Domasio, contain “ a legitimate notion of pattern, and of correspondence between what is mapped and the map. But,” he continues, “the correspondence is not point-to-point . . . The brain is a creative system. Rather than mirroring the environment around it, as an engineered information-processing device would, each brain constructs maps of that environment using its own parameters and internal design, and thus creates a world unique to the class of brains comparably designed.”
Perhaps, then, my sense of self, and a highly individual self at that, is located in that biological flexibility and novelty of imaging the world. Maybe this is why I can locate myself only as I perceive and respond to the distinctiveness of others: the dark spots against the green-gold skin on the fish’s sides, the hints of violet around the gills, and the two orange slashes under the jaw.
But I need to make a couple of cautionary distinctions. First, I remember that my image of the fish maps not the fish as absolute other, but rather, according to Domasio, my “interaction with the object.” As he points out, “Mental images are as much creations of the brain as they are products of the external reality that prompts their creation.” So the image of the fish is an image of my self responding to an actual other, not an authoritative representation of the other itself. Nature initiates the process of consciousness that interacts with objects, but in consciousness, representation does not express domination. It neither masters nor negates the autonomous other.
Second, the image of the fish is not iconic. Though my image of the fish is your image, too, at least partly, let’s not posit a monolithic, correct image. As Damasio explains, “Since you and I are similar enough biologically to construct a similar enough image of the same thing, we can accept without protest the conventional idea that we have formed the picture of some particular thing. But we did not.”
And here’s where the unique, image-making self resides: inside that intricate margin of difference.
As an artist, I’m attracted to the idea of image-making as a marker of the self. As a writer, I’m also attracted to the idea that images are not pictures so much as patterns. These are the familiar concepts, ones I’ve practiced over the years. But to really encounter imagery in Damasio’s sense of the word requires a new tack. If imagery, as the agent of consciousness and self, is comprised of patterns of responses in the body/brain, then it diagrams the self rather than depicting it. From a neurological viewpoint, self is a series of points, potentialities, and patterns, described better by maps than by portraits. These maps are complex beyond my imagining, perhaps, but I might analogize this sense of self by externalizing the process—that is, by mapping my ongoing activities in the landscape.
Just as localized neurons are excited by stimuli, resulting ultimately in a sense of self, so that self moves through the world, excited by landscape sites. My interaction with the anonymous creek, with its boulders and bracken, its massive cedar and fir boles, its diminutive mayflies and its spotted trout--at this moment, in experience or in memory--allows for my self-expression. But it does more. The sum of my landscape experiences, the patterns of activity that I establish there, and the knowledge, narratives, and memories that I gain from these experiences, also comprise the self. Could such a landscape dynamic be analogous to, or even a version of, the neurological production of consciousness and self?
Landscape is more than a simple backdrop. We are formed, in great measure, as we respond to landscape particulars and conditions. This fact applies on the evolutionary, cultural, and individual scales. So it must apply also to that portal where human consciousness emerges--at the very cusp of self.