To be heard in noisy times, don’t yell louder, whisper weirder.
When I was first taught how to draw, the first lesson was showing us how us to slow down, attend closely and really see, instead of merely looking (as most of us do most of the time).
What is meant by this distinction between seeing and looking?
Looking is visually scanning our environment and categorizing whatever is identified in the visual field. It is seeing-as, where the seeing is discarded and the “as” is kept. Seeing is suspending the “as” and preventing it from occluding what is there to see if we slow down and pay close attention.
How did we effect this shift? We were taught the method of blind contour drawing. The teacher set an object before the class to draw. It was sometimes a pile of cloth, or a gourd, or a cow skull — something visually complex.
We were told to pick a part of the object to draw — a part with an irregular edge. We were directed to move our eyes slowly along the edge of the form, and as we moved our eyes, we moved our pencils. Like seismograph needles, as our eyes traced the object and followed its contour, registering each minute bump, pit and arch with both eye and hand.
We were told to pay no attention to what we drew. Once we placed the pencil point in the center of the sheet, we were not even supposed to look down at the paper.
At first, we were anxious. We knew we were producing atrocious drawings, and that nobody would even recognize what we were drawing, and we were right.
But this was not about making good drawings. It was about effecting the shift from looking to seeing. The activity caused us to become deeply absorbed in the object we observed. The absorption sidelined our speech. As we gained the ability to see the unique particulars of our object, and disintermediated our seeing from language, we gradually lost the ability to speak. After class, it would take fifteen or thirty minutes to shift back into the wordworld.
This is what it takes to draw what we see instead of writing what we are taught to re-cognize, categorize and scribe in memory when we move around in the world scanning for relevance. The world is there to see and — once we learn how — we can actually see it when we choose to stop looking for a moment.
We cannot see all the time. Even artists don’t see all the time, and they sometimes choose to focus their absorbed seeing, not on the world, but on the artifact they are crafting. But the originality of the artistic vision is rooted in the actual seeing.
An artist who only gets better at looking and scribing what they recognize will not draw a seen eye, but instead will only scribe a conventional hieroglyphs of an eye in a conventional hieroglyph of a face on a conventional hieroglyph of a person, in a world of conventional hieroglyphs, populated by conventional hieroglyphs, furnished with conventional hieroglyphs.
Artists who see might acquire new habits of looking and scribing. But when they scribe an eye, it is a hieroglyph of an eye they themselves observed. It is an eye as they, themselves, have come to see them. Their style reflects their own original experience of seeing.
As a young adult, I learned the art of spiritual blind contour drawing, an art known as Vipassana.
Instead of sight, the absorbing perception of Vipassana is feeling. Vipassana is a tracing of the contours of sensation on and within the body.
Through this art, I learned some direct and extremely disturbing lessons about existence. We are not who we think we are. Our thoughts are not what our thoughts claim to be.
Our thing incessantly recognizes and scribes whatever it looks at, and whatever it cannot look at it does not see. In other words, we think and think and talk and talk and read and read — and rarely slow down or stop to intuit. We fail to register the myriad nameless, unique particulars of which reality is composed. We skim for the categories and toss out the rest.
We are speed readers of the wordworld, re-generating the same thoughts by the same interpretation and logic we we trained to use long ago before we were even conscious. We see hieroglyphs, we write hieroglyphs, we speak hieroglyphs, we inhabit hieroglyphs. We are hieroglyphs.
We will remain imprisoned in hieroglyphia until we learn to see, hear, feel, smell, taste, touch and, most of all, intuit for ourselves.
If you do not subscribe to the dominant ideology of your time all its art forms will seem as false, stilted and contrived as popular art from the past — and for precisely the same reason.
Popular art always reinforces the current dominant ideology, by presenting an image of reality formatted according to its ideals, prejudices and delusions.
When we collectively move on from one decade to another we move on from one grotesquely willful misrepresentation of reality to another equally (if not worse) grotesquely willful misrepresentation, and from there we look back and jeer at how naively awful we were back then.
I solemnly swear, we are so unbelievably much worse right now that we’ve ever been before, it will make the ludicrous distortions of the 70s and 80s positively pale in comparison.
You don’t see it? You don’t understand? It’s not because there is nothing to understand. It is because you are failing to understand something glaringly real. Wait. You’ll see.
You’ve judged the past according to today’s standards, and you refuse to listen to those who have tried to explain how time works.
Your values are absolute and everyone should have acknowledged them all along.
To you I offer Anaximander’s Maxim: “Beings must pay penance and be judged for their injustices, in accordance with the ordinance of time.”
For those who have done enough truly independent thinking — which means overcoming the dominant ideology of their youth and of the current time, and which also entails asking questions we are not permitted to ask (which are most certainly not the utterly harmless “dangerous questions” our cultural elites pat you on the head for asking — popular culture starts stinking of the most ham-fisted didacticism.
If that stench prevents you from enjoying art, you’ll have to flee to unpopular art, which is formatted by lower-frequency ideals — ideals which endure not just months or years like today’s moral “fast fashion” but whole decades and sometimes centuries. Some of this unpopular art is genuine high art whose appeal to higher sensibilities might help it outlast its time. Though timelessness is never guaranteed, and often fails hilariously, the aspiration to timelessness can encourage less overtly propagandistic art. Some other unpopular art is low art — art so low it penetrates beneath the dirty, depleted and eroded surface of today, into the deeper soil of our species.
A friend of mine invited me over to his house to assemble a model gundam with him. I’ve done it twice now, and it’s got me thinking.
As a young kid, for a few years I got way passionately into building model airplanes and cars.
I can pinpoint exactly when I got into it — July of 1981 — because I associate the smell of the citrus safety glue with Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s wedding which was going on at the same time. I’d picked up a model F-104 Starfighter at an Eckerd Drugs en route to SUUSI, a Unitarian-Universalist family summer camp thing. At SUUSI that year I learned the word “lesbian”, and, simultaneously, I found out that gay people were not mythical beings, but actually existed, were attending this camp, and wanted to hang out with each other. Who knew? Also at this session, they showed a film called “Beatlemania”, where I discovered that the Beatles were not an obscure musical act that only I knew about. Not only did a large number of UU adults show up to see the film, but other kids my age did, too. But here’s the real kicker: according to this film, the Beatles were a very popular band — bigger, even, than KISS, the Spinners and Ray Stevens.
Don’t judge me. I did not ask to grow up in rural South Carolina, and I definitely did not ask to be the socially awkward nerd child of yankee pinkos who decided to save money by living in an extra-backwards town neighboring the university where my dad worked — a town that detested yankee pinkos and their awkward offspring. And in the 80s, no less: the golden age of nerd persecution. The theme of every other movie that came out was how dorky, impotently horny and hopeless nerds were, and how they deserve the abuse they naturally receive from their social superiors, but maybe they can use computers or science to get revenge or catch a glimpse of gratuitous boobery. It was not a good time. So fuck off. I had to figure everything thing out myself. That included, most of all, how to generate self-respect in a respect vacuum — a skill that, more than anything else, has made me who I am.
But I’m digressing.
So, model-making takes me way back into by biographical prehistory, and the idea of trying it again was intriguing.
But it wasn’t the same at all. There is no citrus glue. The pieces fit together perfectly — like, weirdly perfectly. When I made my F-104 Starfighter the parts were crude — obviously molded out of plastic magma, probably poured by hand from cast iron vats, in some dark factory lit only by coal fire and arc welders, by some worker who looked like a sooty Mario from Donkey Kong. The parts were attached to trees, and had to be twisted and wrenched free before they could be stuck together.
Half the time the part broke at the wrong point, and the other half of the time the part got all mangled. Later, I learned to gouge the parts off the tree with a blunt X-Acto blade. I wasn’t clear on the concept of disposable blades. I thought of changing the blade as repairing the knife if it broke, and as long as it kept sort of cutting stuff, it wasn’t broken, yet. So I’m pretty sure the blade I plunged into the palm of my left hand, while attempting to carve a T-Top into the roof of a silver 1978 Trans-Am Firebird, had a broken-off tip, and was was also covered with rust and paint. Sadly, that hand-stab was likely the cleanest cut of my model-making career.
These gundam molds are miracles of precision fabrication. We snip the pieces with an instrument called the GodHand Nipper. But snip is the wrong word. The plastic just politely and perfectly separates along the cutline.
Then we sand the imperceptible mark where the cut allegedly occurred, until it is as if that part is a material manifestation beamed to Earth from Plato’s plane of pure form. The parts are then snapped together, effortlessly, without any need of glue. They fit with a perfection that gives me goosebumps. Half of the experience is marveling at the ingenuity of the kit’s designer, and at the quality of the fabrication.
Reflecting on this experience, I realize I’ve misconceived the activity.
A long time ago a friend of mine explained to me the difference between popular art and fine art as one of effort, or — as we say in the service design racket, of “value exchange”. In popular art we expend little effort, and in return passively receive the modest pleasures of entertainment. With fine art, we invest serious effort in meeting the work half-way, and through active participation receive sometime life-transforming rewards.
In saying all this, I am not claiming that gundam models are fine art — (but I’m also not denying it) — but if I were to think of it that way, I would see the assembly of these kits less as an act of creativity, and more in terms of that kind of cocreativity demanded of the listener of classical music — or maybe, better, of the performer of a scored piece of music. Here there is a lovely blending of connoisseurship and artistry, of consumption and production, of a kind that was more available back in the day when, if you wanted to hear your favorite Beethoven sonata, you had to go play it for yourself with your own two hands on a piano.
I was most excited about the musical performance part of the event, but it turns out the lecture part might have more lasting impact.
His lecture was about the history of raga forms, and his own views on the degradation of raga forms from an organic aesthetically-guided musicality to a synthetic computational model. The great loss, according to T. M. Krisha, is the ability to spontaneously feel the belonging of any part of the raga to whole. The synthetic ragas must mechanically repeat phrasings to maintain its re-cognitive character.
What shocked and excited me about what he was saying is that this precisely is a distinction I have been trying to make in my own philosophical work, distinguishing between synthetic ideas — which must be explicitly recalled and applied in constructing thoughts — versus conceptive ideas which work spontaneously and produce givens: givens of perception, of interpretation and of thought. The acquisition of a new conceptive capacity gives us new givens from nowhere, expanding our ontological range, thus enlarging our enworldment and enabling us to accommodate more truth.
I feel certain that my profound philosophical — or better, praxic — kinship with T. M. Krishna’s accounts for my instant love of his music. I conceive his music as an auditory embodiment of the very ideas that animate my thinking.
India is a living superset of every possible philosophical idea humanity will ever conceive, so I am overjoyed, but not at all surprised, to have reconceived an Indian enworldment..
I dug through T. M. Krishna’s book, A Southern Music and found some of the content from his lecture:
In the early eighteenth century, Venkatamakhin’s descendent Muddu Venkatamakhin decided to artificially create ragas for the remaining fifty-three of the seventy-two possible melas computed by his ancestor Venkatamakhin. He used the same method that had been used to create the raga deshisimharavam. This meant that all seventy-two melas were functional. The raganga raga needed to have only the seven svaras. It was around this time that arohana and avarohana came to be used to define the melodic structure of a raga. This created artificial janya ragas that were formulated from the non-functional melas. As these ragas had no aesthetic component to their identity, the simplest way to describe them was to mention the svaras that appeared in their arohana and avarohana. These svaras were after all based on the computed svarasthanas. This was another important marker in raga history. Even under the constructed melas, Muddu Venkatamakhin placed older, naturally evolved ragas. He not only gave names to all the fifty-three raganga ragas that he constructed, but also altered the names of older raganga ragas. This was done to accommodate the ingenious syllabo-numeric memory system that was evolved to identify the number of the mela from the name of the raganga raga, a system called the katapayadi samkhya.
As I move to the next major development, I must point out that the exercise of computation resulted in ragas being reinterpreted in terms of only the svaras they contained, rather than the aesthetic form of their melodic movements. This is also revealed in the use of arohana and avarohana as the defining characteristic of ragas. We must realize that once these systems came into practice, they were also being placed upon ragas that had evolved organically and were not determined by the arohana or avarohana. All ragas were being looked at through the prism of the arohana and avarohana, thus deconstructing their natural melodic features. …
Ragas that evolved from melodic phraseology developed through time and remained cohesively held together by the aesthetic cognition of unity. These ragas may have seven svaras or even less. They cannot be purely defined by the sequence of the svaras in the arohana or avarohana. Examples of this are surati, ritigaula, anandabhairavi, gaula and saveri. …
In the eighteenth century, we come across another treatise called Sangraha Chudamani (1750–1800). We know very little about the treatise or its author Govinda (not to be confused with Govinda Dikshita). This treatise completely sterilized the concept of raga and mela. Govinda combined the ideas of sampurna along with arohana and avarohana. In doing so, he decided that the ragas that held the name of the mela must have all the seven svaras in sequential order both in the arohana and avarohana. He also created a new term for the melakarta: meladhikara (the raga that has authority over the mela). Most ragas that evolved naturally did not have svaras in linear sequence and could not be meladhikaras. Only six older ragas were given the meladhikara status. Older natural ragas were listed within artificial melas whose meladhikara was a synthetic raga. The status of the raga that held the title for the mela had thus changed from being the most popular raga to the one that had authority over the mela…
With these conceptual changes to raga and the adaptation of many forms of contrived svara sequences as ragas, we are faced with an aesthetic challenge. Do all these different types of ragas have the abstract nature that is a creation of the raga’s musical heritage, phraseology and its psychological recognition? An aware listener can sense this by listening to just one phrase. In an artificial raga, the musician and the listener have to constantly connect with all the svaras present and their sequence. They cannot transcend this level of engagement and move to the real level of aesthetics of phrase forms. Why is such transcendence important?
Let me suggest an answer to that question. A raga belongs not to the literal but to the inferred. The inferred comes alive when the perceiver can be invited into the sound of the raga, which is born from every svara, every phrase, every phrase connection and the raga as a whole. This experience is only possible when the listener does not need to be reminded of the technical nature of the svara or its sequence. Synthetic ragas lack the abstractive nature both in form and in the way they can be received.
If you watch people draw, it is pretty obvious that most of them aren’t drawing as much as writing in some 2-dimensional hieroglyphic language.
I suspect something similar is going on with visual perception. When non-visual people look out on the world they don’t see images as much as read them.
Perhaps the same can be can be said for all experience — including the experience of thought. What defies language gets filtered out, or trapped within, denied full existence.
I suspect a great many people are imprisoned in a wordworld, locked in or walled in, and some without so much as a window to let in wordless light, sound or touch. (This is the consequence — and possibly the very purpose — of making the personal political.)
Jasper Johns said it best:
The compulsion to resolve conflict with others through dialogue is natural and good.
But some forms of conflict arise precisely from an incapacity for dialogue.
The problem might be the fault of one party or another, or both, or even neither. The problem might be specific to the relationship, a peculiarity of the chemistry of two misfitted personalities, and not attributable to any conspicuous shortcomings of anyone. The conflicting factors might be distributed between the conflicting parties and deeply engrained in the history and habits of the relationship, out of the direct control of either side, and in certain circumstances difficult or impossible to effectively address.
In these cases, attempts to resolve the conflict are unlikely to succeed, and are more likely to create even more conflict and more need for resolution.
And that is actually fine.
These reconciliations are not emergencies, and when they seem to be, things might not be as they seem so self-evidently to be.
Sometimes our urgent need to resolve things with another person is not actually for the sake of the relationship at all — but, in fact, for the sake of restoring our own self-image, damaged by contact with real otherness. We are not trying to heal the relationship, or even heal ourselves, but rather to heal an image of ourselves, our morality, our sense of omniscience, our artistic vision of life.
If we manage to mature as people, sometimes life shows us that our efforts to reconcile — sincere efforts, too! — were really just attempts to persuade the other person to stop being so other, and instead to submit to performing the role of the person we need them to be. — All this so we can return to the comfortable self-satisfaction of playing our role in our movie.
Or, more accurately, our roles, plural.
We forget how many roles involved in creating movies are not acting roles.
In our own movie we are not only the star actor — we are also scriptwriter, producer, director, and editor. We may also be promoter, red carpet gala and paparazzi. Some of the more eggheaded of us are also film critic. All of us are audience.
Depending on who we are, we may root our selfhood in any of these roles, and what is at stake in many conflicts is not the on-screen drama but the off-screen creative differences.
The worst of these creative conflicts are those where one or both artists refuse to allow the other to be anything but a moving image on their screen. The real stakes are not the colorful shadows thrown on the screen, or even in the bright bulbs of the projector, but up out in the sunlight of reality, out in the source of these projected visions and self-contained realities, overlapping, clashing divine sparks — the jewels-within-jewels, jewels-within-nets, nets-within-jewels of Indra’s Net.
We may live our whole lives and die without ever catching ourselves in the act of relegating others to the confines of our screens. If so, we will have been one of the blessed ignoramuses who were right all along. Most of us fail to ever notice that we are not God.
Relationships are less like movies and more like improv. Each actor has a tentative vision of what is going on, but also intuits and responds to what other actors are doing and envisioning and intuiting, and the action transcends them all, while being immanent in each of them and all of them.
Only here, in the sunlight of improv, is reconciliation possible.
Reconciliation is not scripted, not directed, not produced. And despite popular wisdom, forgiveness is not a matter of editing or rewriting a script.
Too many people think art is the production of interesting, pleasing or entertaining sounds, images, performances, etc. This mode of making produces sterile artistic product.
We have forgotten that real art founds whole new ways to exist in the world.
Art is not here to be looked at, listened to or experienced. Art is here to give us new ways to look from ourselves, listen to the world around us and experience reality.
Socially, the purpose of artists is to enlarge the world and make room for more kinds of life, more kinds of personhood.
This helps explain why art is so often created by misfits.
The artist does not fit into the world as it is, so they have to enworld a bigger world capable of accommodate them, so it can welcome them home.
The purpose of art is enworldment.
This is true also for philosophy. Philosophy is not here to produce arguments for what is true, or contrive new explanations for this and that, or speculate on what might be the case. Philosophy is the design of new ways to conceive existence, to experience life, to relate to others, to respond to events and to make something new of oneself and reality.
- I say “design” because philosophies are not only about experience but interaction — much of it functional — among groups of people. There is a need for what Nick Gall calls (borrowing from software engineering) interoperability. In cases where the user of something might be very different from the creator, design methods for explicitly understanding and accommodating difference are indispensable. It is true that philosophy has been done by solitary artists communicating to the few capable of understanding them, but this is only an accident of history. When our ways of conceiving existence begin to threaten our continued existence, it might be time to revisit how we think about how we think about thinking.