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Porosity and Existing in Simultaneous Worlds

Sophia Weinstein's picture

Porous: “having small holes that allow air or liquid to pass through; easy to pass or get through” (Merriam-Webster). Being porous is being open, understanding that we are not just one, standalone, unchanging, impenetrable being. It is understanding that nothing in our world ever is. However, the other aspect of being porous is that to be ‘easy to pass or get through’, it needs to be separate, distinct, and individual. It must, in some way, be nonporous. Can gas be porous? How does gas be considered porous if it is entirely penetrable, and in no way can it be nonporous? In order to be porous, one needs to be an individual entity. With porosity always comes distinction and self-identification. It is in some ways a given in our lives, but it can also be a choice – to see, experience, and interact with the world from different perspectives and vantage points of life. It helps determine who we are as people, and how we function as a society. I feel I have come to my own definition of the word, and my own understanding of the relevance of porosity in our lives to finding our homes and ourselves.

I believe that true porosity is being able to connect and live within different levels, or magnitudes, of experience. When I say different magnitudes, I am referring to different roles we all have in the universe. In my own life, I am the most central, constant entity. But in my life at Bryn Mawr, I am one of several students in small personable classes, and one of hundreds of individuals that make up the student body. We all exist together on the same planet, in a vast universe, yet are all experiencing infinite different worlds and existences all at once. And here is where we make a choice. When taking a photo, or perhaps observe nature through binoculars, you have a choice of where to focus your lense. Do you want to capture the branches right in front of you? Or do you want a crisp shot of the trees across the lake? In life we are constantly making a similar choice. I choose to focus on the importance of my education when I have a paper to write, but sometimes I need to consider other perspective of the world. Perhaps to consider how inconsequential I in the grand scheme of the universe (sometimes this is comforting, I’m not sure why), and let go of the stress and pressure that accompanies self-centeredness.

For some people, their lives consist entirely of their work and their own problems and concerns, with little consideration of outside forces; they live life unconscious of their role in any vaster existences. There are others, such as astronomers, whose focus is on a much bigger scope. They want to understand how our tiny planet fits in to the rest of the unknown. And there are biologists that look within to the amalgam of life that exists within ourselves, where are bodies are a world of its own. I reckon that most people are somewhere between these extremes when choosing how to adjust their focus on the world. I believe it is in this decision that we choose to live porously.

This ‘brand’ of porosity differs from other forms that we have encountered, specifically that in Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “Vaster than Empires, and More Slow”. The science fiction tale tells the story of a ‘Sensor’ who perceives every feeling and emotion from others, and thus has grown to detest humanity. He is described as being “‘the first fully cured case of Render’s Syndrome –a variety of infantile autism which was thought to be incurable… (T)he cause of the autistic condition in this case is the supernormal empathic capacity…The therapy was completely successful…He is certainly not autistic’” (Le Guin 150). Upon re-evaluating Le Guin’s character, Osden, a sensor, is not an example of someone who is porous. In his treatment for his autistic condition, I believe that he went from one version of non-porous, to another. Autism is characterized by an inability to develop social and communication skills. Despite the fact that Osden can now ‘read’ the emotions of others, this inability still defines him. In either form of existence, Osden is incapable in existing in any world outside of his own. He is repulsed by humans, and is taken in completely by the forest. Osden never exists as an individual entity as part of a greater world. He is “Mr. No-Skin” (Le Guin 153). The ‘infinitely penetrable’ state that Osden is in makes him as though he is gas; can Osden be porous, if in no way can he be nonporous? Porosity intrinsically implies a separateness or distinctiveness between the object and the outside. It is easy to pass or get through, yet an individual entity nonetheless. 

In a Serendip response to Stacy Alaimo: Porous Bodies and Trans-Corporeality, I said that “there are infinite ecosystems all living within, in response to, and because of, other ecosystems… Every ecosystem is just a component of another ecosystem, making earth home to an infinite number of universes.” I think that this is what makes our world naturally porous, and enables people to become more porous if we choose to.

This specific form of porosity, this choice we are given in deciding which aspects of our reality we choose to be a part of, is a main factor in environmental education and activism. In Bowers “Steps to the Recovery of Ecological Intelligence”, he calls into question how our self-centered culture is shaping – and potentially limiting – our development of ecological intellect.

“A second suggestion would be for participants in a learning situation to reinforce each other in giving greater attention to the cultural and environmental patterns that connect, to the consequences that follow from different behaviors, and how these consequences affect others –in both the cultural and natural systems. The subjectively-centered self is such a prominent tradition in mainstream western culture, even among artists and people searching for a deeper sense of meaning and purpose, that it needs to be discussed and, if possible, reframed in ways that take account of how an action affects the actions of others, including natural systems, in ways that influence their development” (Bowers 47)

I think Bowers assertions that the idealized view of inward reflection in our ‘mainstream western culture’ is holding us back from actualizing change is just one aspect of a more complex situation. In Jody’s class, this sparked a lively conversation about the conundrum of how the main tangible benefit of taking on a role in society is for personal gains, not societal improvements. After all, how economical would it be to put effort into something that leaves you worse off, or fails to leave you better off? Personal reflection and inwardness is what makes us aware of ourselves, gives us identity, and thus gives us the opportunity to become porous. The problem is rooted in disconnect between what makes an individual better off, and what makes a larger group of people better off. They are taught as separate ideas: work (for yourself) and volunteering (for others). In “Social Justice, Peace, and Environmental Education”, an outline of ‘Queries for Culturally-Counscious Environmental Education’ asks two questions of the school environment: “Does the school induct students into an experience of community that counters the press towards individualism?” and “Does the school encourage students to share their perspectives and participate in the shaping of their education and school governance?” (Greenwood, Manteaw, Smith 93).  I am critical of these opposing ideas. Why does an experience of community need to counter the press towards individualism? Is ‘encouraging students to share their perspectives and participate’ not a push towards individualism? Here at Bryn Mawr, we are all working together to further our minds and learn valuable skills for the ‘real world’. We work together to focus on ourselves. We are pushing towards individualism. Together. Being porous allows us to be part of a community while still maintain our individuality. And is this not what exists in places where we feel at home? Where we are urged to come together as unique individuals? What is a community, if not a group of distinct people? To become activists, we need to learn to stop separating the notions of self-centeredness and selflessness. To achieve anything, especially in education and activism, we need to place value in the individual, as well as in the community.

Rather than further ourselves from focusing on self-improvement, perhaps we should teach ourselves to recognize the personal benefits that arise from working towards societal improvements; to teach ourselves to live beyond ourselves, porously. A community is where you find benefit in contributing to the welfare of the group is a home. Being porous, living outside of yourself without abandoning your own aspiration, is how you find home.

Perhaps, for me, my home is where I feel free enough to exist in any way that I choose, where I feel untethered to one form of life and am able to branch out and extend who I am. Home is where I am given the chance to be porous; not shut into one existence, and not shut out from any.


Serendip post I referenced: /exchange/eco-literacy-2014/aphorisnt/thinking-about-improbability-place#comment-144897


Anne Dalke's picture

The economics of altruism


This project steps off from an earlier one in which you defined home as “feeling like myself,” as feeling “healthy.” It evolves into a related claim, in which home is not only a site for change and re-creation (as you described in last month), but the place “where I am given the chance to be porous.”

As you say, explicitly, your definition of and interest in porosity is less as a physical phenomenon—how open our body is to the toxins, say, in our environment--than as a habit of being, and seeing. Like astronomers, with their telescopes, or biologists, with their microscopes, we can both “choose to focus,” and choose how we want to “adjust that focus.” We can “teach ourselves to live beyond ourselves, porously.” Nice.

Certainly the most interesting move of your paper, to me, is your initial one, problematizing your key concept by noting that in order “to be ‘easy to pass or get through,’” we need be “separate, distinct, and individual”: to be porous, we “must be nonporous”; “with porosity, always comes distinction.” (As Jody would say, laughing: paradox!)

You offer Ogden as a very striking counter-example: “non-porous,” because autistic, incapable of interacting in a larger world. I find this so striking, in part, because many descriptions of autism focus on it as the ultimate condition of porosity, the inability to separate the self from the multiple inputs of the world. (Would you like to learn more about this, or about disability studies more generally? I have a wealth of fascinating material, much of it being gathered by a senior English major who is writing about literary representations of autism.)

The other spot in this essay that snagged my attention was your question about “how economical it would be to put effort into something that leaves you worse off.”

You go on from there to refuse the conventional distinctions between communities and the distinct individuals who make them up, the customary contrasts between “the notions of self-centeredness and selflessness.” Your reflections put me in mind of one of the small revelations of my graduate schooling, when the well-known cultural critic Barbara Herrnstein Smith challenged the concept of altruism, always “motivated economically,” she claimed, because we will willingly suffer loss in exchange for some “ultimate value” (which could be something like the belief that we have the freedom to chose, or the ability to make a difference).

I’m wondering if you might go on, next month, exploring these ideas—the “economics of altruism,” the “impossibility of selflessness”?—in All Over Creation. How do you see your ideas playing out in that novel?