Bridges of Play in Art, Philosophy, and Childhood


The nature of the will is one of the major problematics of life.  Philosophers and artists have long labored to clarify the position we are in concerning the will.  How much power does one person have?  How much responsibility does one have in achieving for oneself the good life, and how can this be extended to others?  How exactly are we situated in this world?  To better understand the nature of will, artists, philosophers, and children open themselves up to opposition by treating it with a sense of play.

The child at play gives form to conflict, practicing “out in the open” in order to internalize what has been noticed in the external world, to gain understanding of self and situation.  The forces driving conflicts between people are usually invisible, ideological, and unconscious, but once they are driving behavior, the child becomes aware yet lacks understanding.  To develop a working model, or what Edith Cobb called a “world image,” the behavior is reproduced in experimental play.

Philosophers routinely reflect and do their thinking by surveying both sides of a problem.  Socrates is the archetype for this.  In his dialogues we often find Socrates asking questions normally thought to have obvious answers, questions like, “Do I want what is good?”  As part of a chain of questions that bring the other’s  inconsistencies of thought into higher resolution, he is surprisingly effective.  Socrates often leaves his company in a state of shock from having lived so long under the aegis of certain beliefs and values without examining them.

Similarly, artists often present situations without explicitly taking a side.  In crafting a story, an author takes all the time that’s required for viewers to believe and situate themselves in the whole driving conflict.  In order to do this, they must give equal weight to opposing sides.  Good is labored equally to evil.  This cannot be understated.  Evil is not run away from.  The author must take a detached stance to good as well as evil, and the long process of crafting such a story is a redemptive process for the author, for in that time love has been taken to evil.  The work is finished; now the conflict is felt by the reader, in all its natural complexity.  And this is what the work offers that life tends not to: honor to the paradoxical complexity of living. 

The feeling of conflict is not going to be novel for anyone.  Life is difficult, long, a labyrinth.  No map could ever be created that would give absolute lasting order to the world, whereby we could determine what to do or where to go next.  What is unique to the arts is that they offer safe passage through experience, and thus to transformation.  In other words, the arts offer the best simulacrum of such a map.  Life is always giving us experience; too often we fail to travel through it.  Whether from anxiety or what Kierkegaard called the “dizziness of freedom,” fear or sheer confusion, we seem resistant to understanding or processing what happens to us.  Such resistance promotes undesirable thought and behavior loops.  If we would travel through experience, our transformation would be the effect.  In order to do this, we must sometimes come down from the clouds of our own cleverness and righteousness and ground ourselves in earthly silliness.  There are many compatible modes of being.  There is no going out of character.  To quote Walt Whitman,

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

flowery-thing-oct-2016

The Disembodiment of Knowledge

Thinking about Media with Socrates and McLuhan

“Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior.”    – Marshall McLuhan

A gradual externalization of human knowledge began with the advent of written language, the first alphabets arising around the 3rd millennium BC, and the old Latin alphabet around the 2nd century BC.  Invented smack in the middle of a world thriving on oral traditions, alphabets gave humans a revolutionary tool for sharing and preserving information, knowledge, and wisdom.  This new vehicle for human thought seriously influenced not just how we communicated and documented our world, but it  changed the ways that we understand and respond to reality.  The brilliant and prolific writer, Marshall McLuhan, known best for his memorable statement “the medium is the message,” commented on how the invention of writing laid the foundation for our modern mode of thinking:

“Western history was shaped for some three thousand years by the introduction of the phonetic [alphabet] .… Rationality and logic came to depend on the presentation of connected and sequential facts or concepts.”

The advent of writing also relieved individuals of what was likely an ongoing and challenging task—that of memorizing and internalizing all of their stories, myths, rituals, poetry, recipes, and inter-generational knowledge.  What once only travelled by means of memory and the tongue, now could be written down and spread across great distances, enduring the test of time with acutely consistent messages.   Socrates spoke of this transition, and Plato wrote of it.  However, these two thinkers were not quite so keen on the convenience of writing, but rather wary of its effects on man.

“If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder.”

In Plato’s writing entitled Phaedrus, Socrates claimed that his true teachings would never in fact be transposed into writing, but spoken only.  So, can we say that we know anything of (the already very elusive) Socrates?   He feared the disembodiment of learning which he believed came with writing, including the loss of context, intonation, and response.  Still, it proceeded thus onward with the invention of the printing press, the telegraph, the photograph, and so on to the virtual age, each technological medium bringing with it great strides for the collective human thought-pool.

With such elaborate conveniences, however, one must wonder which muscles of ours have been allowed to rest, and to what atrophy?

Living alongside the Internet, for example, we today need remember little because Google will always recall it for us at a moment’s notice.  Nothing need be internalized or set to memory because it’s already stored in the mind of the global village, in the external memory of our collective consciousness.  McLuhan, who referred to these inventions as extension of man — a reaching outward, beyond oneself.  He was aware of and wary of this disembodiment, and yet he knew that this was the direction into which humans would need and choose to venture.   (And indeed we have–from living through online avatars, to visiting art museums via robots, to the Voyager space probes–humanity has created a multitude of extensions of our selves and species which enable us to reach further and with greater and more creative facility out into the universe.)

We expand adventurously outward into the universe with our tools as our tightropes.  Alan Watts once said that we “…are a focal point where the universe is becoming conscious of itself.”  From this perspective, our man-made extensions only reveal an ongoing natural  progression of extensions and connectedness between us and the universe.   Whitman, in his epic Song of Myself reminded us that we are “not contain’d between [our] hat and boots.”

Still, what other effects are included in this abundance of extensions?   Socrates went on to describe the burden of too much information:

“And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.”

Mocking Bird, 2009, graphite drawing by Jennifer Ramey

Many of us have so little time today to spend in quality research of a topic in order to really understand it.  So we trust various news sources, reporters, writers, or journalists to garner for us information synthesized into an understanding.  And this sates many of our hunger pains or the social pressures to stay “informed.”  Yet these are second hand opinions, often from perspectives containing ulterior motives.   If we are seeking to learn online, the distractions alone can turn many sincere pursuits of knowledge into scenarios of kids in candy stores.

So, how we learn about the world around us is a tricky and mysterious process.  We learn whether or not we intend to.  One thing is certain, as McLuhan points out:

“Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior.”

Education specialists suggest that educators and learners need to bridge the gap between theory and practice—that is, to practice what is referred to as Experience Based Education.  We need more opportunities to practice and have experiences with a body of knowledge in order to effectively transform it into useful insight or wisdom.  We must embody it:  try it on, touch it, maneuver it.   If we try to build knowledge with bits of information which are housed—to varying degrees—outside our heads and out of our hands, it becomes significantly harder to synthesize these bits into meaningful, larger ideas, projects, or movements.

This synthesis produces all of humanity’s great emergent art forms and includes the alchemy necessary for making meaning in, improving, and contributing to our world.  Maria Popova, an articulator of interdisciplinary thought and a prolific author, writes:

“In order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these pieces and build new castles.”

Our memories and experiences are qualitative and exponential “castles” which continuously build upon themselves.  Though it’s wonderfully exciting to live vicariously through film and sitcom and bloggers and vloggers, it is essential to remember that they cannot earn for us our experience or or make for us our art.  And though it is convenient to allow our technology to temporarily remember for us our stories, recipes, quotes, and poems, we must keep in mind that it cannot earn for us our wisdom.

Barnett Newman on the Aesthetic Roots of Humanity

“Man’s hand traced the stick through the mud to make a line before he learned to throw the stick as a javelin.”

Mandalic Compass, for Matt, ink and pencil, 2015, by Bonsai Ramey

“Undoubtedly the first man was an artist,” begins a remarkable little speculative essay written in 1947 by Barnett Newman.  It proposes that the aesthetic act of wonder precedes the social and utilitarian acts of animal survival.  The aesthetic experience requires a mind capable of connecting disparate dots, that can render the non-local local, the concealed revealed, that can ask whether “to be or not to be.”  Although historically Newman is remembered as a modernist painter who challenged, and continues to challenge, with his large, minimalist color field paintings, I will always, probably, think of him as the one who wrote “The First Man Was an Artist.”

The essay was published in a periodical called Tiger’s Eye at that time when the home of modern art was shifting from Paris to America. Its power reminds me of that poetic power typical of essays of the past, from writers like Emerson, Stevenson, Montaigne, and Chesterton, which subtly illuminates the limits of analysis.  Chopping things up into little bits may lead one to understand a system and to a kind of wonder, but the analytical process of sizing something up, of measurement by separating something into its constituent elements, cannot grasp meaning.  “The whole is other than the sum of its parts,” as the Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka wrote.  Other is the operative word, commonly misquoted as “greater.”  The whole (whether we’re talking about life or an artwork) has a reality of its own; no cataloguing of parts can ever indicate that reality, and that reality is what I mean by “meaning.”  Nevertheless, it is possible to court this connectivity, to glimpse the whole within one of its parts.  William Irwin Thompson writes that this glimpse is precisely what the sacred is.  In The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light, Thompson writes:

To begin to understand what is going on in the…art of the Upper Paleolithic, we have to escape not only the ethnocentricity of academic male subcultures, but also the limited epistemology of social science.  We have to use the “Imagination” to recover a sense of the sacred. The sacred is the emotional force which connects the part to the whole; the profane or the secular is that which has been broken off from, or has fallen off, its emotional bond to the universe.” (102).

Matt's Mandala Compass

We could replace Thompson’s “Imagination” with “aesthetic sense.” The aesthetic is a connected, sacred, imaginal, intuitive, emotional force.  The modern scientific-material mindset has not done well to encourage the fostering of creative self-reliance and the health of whole systems, tending more toward bottom-linism and banal profit motives.  While it should be no surprise when intuitions are written off as airy ethereal “fluff,” it should be a deep concern that we are in the middle of an aesthetic crisis.

Even with an experience of the sacred, the question is likely to remain for one who thinks in material terms and seeks material proof: what sustains the underlying Celtic knotwork of things on Earth?  It is as unknown today as it has ever been, despite our becoming conscious of ecology and despite our looking to nature for models of how to live, build, and organize, as in the field of biomimetics.  We know it isn’t a substance, but the hard sciences only can deal with experimentally viable phenomena.  This rules out the possibility of science reasoning out the connection between human dreams and termite mounds.  Still, for our own lives, we don’t need to look far into the analogous ways of the wild to be thrown into reverie: why is it you never see a line of ants on a log in gridlock for an accident ahead?  Can the Department of Transportation take its next cue from the ants?  Questions like this are fantastic, practical endeavors for scientific research, and they may be the best hope for restoring a healthy balance between our species and the rest of the world.  This is the gift rationality offers us. But notice that the connectivity is understood by category (how is human infrastructure connected to insect infrastructure)?  How is a part related to another part?  Not, How is a part related to the whole of Nature?  The latter is the question we are all forced to ask today. Rationality reaches its limit.  To get at this question, other means are necessary.  Perhaps we are in the present ecological crisis because we have ceased to make decisions for aesthetic reasons, insisting always on the utilitarian angle.  We must learn to employ that ancient inherited aspect of us which is creative, for the aesthetic act is a byproduct of an intuition of wholes and the urgent desire to express them.

In its earliest flowering, according to Newman, “speech was a poetic outcry rather than a demand for communication.”  It is human to feel deeply, not just to communicate, and the need to express what is uniquely human in us is deep-seated.  It is even more human to become aware that however loudly one may cry out, the source of that expression and the purpose of that expression are one and the same.

“It is important to keep in mind that the necessity for dream is stronger than any utilitarian need.  In the language of science, the necessity for understanding the unknowable comes before any desire to discover the unknown.”

Matt's Mandala Compass Detail

How in control can a creature be?  We are in control in much the same way as a man who builds a bridge as he walks out in space across it.  He floats in the air and is free to hammer in the next board.  He extends the bridge, and he may choose to begin curving its path, but he is confined to build forward, standing on a small walkway.  Therefore, he is far from complete control.  His destiny is determined by the section of the bridge he has just created.

Showing Promise

Egg grown in a Tree
ink, 2015, Bonsai Ramey

A student puts off his final essay till the night before it’s due.  The stakes are high.  Four pages and 10% of his final grade for the course are on the line.  The deadline looms guillotine-like above his head, and this motivates him.  He gets his grade back soon and proclaims to his peers, “I don’t know how I got a 95% on my paper; I pulled it out of my butt the night before!”  What’s notable about this common scenario, putting aside his rectal storage site, is that this 95% is viewed as a major shortcoming of the teacher and a buckling of the high standard of quality he or she is known or supposed to maintain.

Let’s assume for the moment that while this is true, it is not entirely true.  Perhaps a second reading of the situation would ask, Why is the student not more impressed by himself, his transcendent nature, and what he was able to do with a few long, intense hours of focused, guillotine-dreading time?  He has produced not just passable work; the work is good.  It shows PROMISE.

We say of someone showing potential that he shows promise, exhibiting an aptitude or skill early in its flowering.  Why do we use the word “promise”?  Because, however nascent in its development, the potential culmination of the skill is perceptible.  Because, like promising something will come to pass, those who show promise would lift themselves above their current orbit merely by staying their present course.  Every person is a becoming, but that person who shows promise in a given capacity can consider himself promised a privileged position, a sacred earning, a gift, a power, merely by holding to the path along which he already finds himself.  This is special, for noticing the path means already some part of the conflict about life has been overcome.  A unifying direction has become visible from the chaos, a means to trump entropy, to “contribute a verse.”  As Walt Whitman wrote:

O me! O life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

Answer:

That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Trusting the Ground of Learning

In order to access that “world in a grain of sand” which William Blake wrote about, physically, nothing more is required than to walk the beach, sit and comb the sand.  In the end, physically, there is probably nothing required.  What he meant was a psychological alignment.  Only we think the weight of “infinity in the palm of the hand” is too great to bear alone, or it seems cheap, so we hire all kinds of help and conspire to lift the entire beach to see what’s holding it up.  If we can do it together, after all our labors, then, maybe, the reward will be great.  But a single grain of sand—there has got to be more to it than that.  We’re not used to finding greatness without great expenditure.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said in a speech that, to be concerned for others, we must “project the I into the thou.”  The only way to test something truly is to test it on its own ground, to walk that ground in those shoes.  This in itself is challenging enough; but it is impossible if one does not “know oneself” first.  So the reverse is just as true.  Nietzsche knew this well when he said, “The you is older than the I; the you has been pronounced holy, but not yet the I: so man crowds toward his neighbor” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 60).

Original Blue Mandala2