Category Archives: Biography

T. M. Krishna!

Sunday, Susan and I got to attend a lec-dem by the great Carnatic vocalist T. M. Krishna. We were especially excited that he was accompanied by violinist, Akkarai Subhalakshmi.

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.

Designerly exnihilism

Any experienced, philosophically-sensitive designer who reads the passage below will recognize how indebted design praxis is to Existentialist thought:

When we combine Heidegger’s explanation of the shift to the perspective of presence-at-hand with Sartre’s functionalist account of emotions, we obtain as a bonus an interesting explanation of our tendency to pit reason against passion. Examination of objects present-at-hand and indulgence in emotions like anger have the same origin — the recalcitrance of the world. Confronted with the broken toy, one child takes it to bits to examine it while another flies into a temper. The first deals with the recalcitrant object practically, the other ‘magically’. So reason and passion can come to seem incompatible strategies for coping with the world. The mistake of the dualist who seizes upon this and speaks of separate faculties or ‘parts of the soul’ is a failure to appreciate that, when things run smoothly, there can be no factoring out and isolation of the elements of understanding and mood, belief and desire, which are integrated in our engagement with the world.

The steepness of a hill is an undramatic example of something disclosed through mood. An important and distinctive feature of existentialist writings, however, is the demonstration that some moods and passions disclose matters of great moment. It is this which prompts one commentator to remark that the existentialists’ ‘phenomenology of the emotions … will prove to be one of their most valuable and lasting achievements’. An obvious instance is Angst, which is taken by several of our writers to intimate to us our radical freedom and individuality. I shall return to this and other examples including, by way of further initial illustration, the disclosive character imputed to sexual experience. ‘There is no doubt,’ writes Merleau-Ponty, ‘that we must recognize in modesty, desire and love in general a metaphysical significance.’ Shame and shamelessness, for example, together reveal the ‘ambiguous’ character of the body. In shame, it is revealed as an ‘object’, victim of the gaze and inspection of another. In shameless behaviour, a ‘subject’ — the dancing Salome, say — seeks to captivate another person, tum him into an ‘object’. More generally, Merleau-Ponty concludes, sexual experience is ‘an opportunity … of acquainting oneself with the human lot in its most general aspects of autonomy and dependence’.

Whether Merleau-Ponty’s particular suggestion is plausible does not matter for present purposes. What does matter is the plausibility, given the Existentialist’s view of our Being-in-the-world, of supposing that sexual and other feelings should have ‘metaphysical significance’. If our Being-in-the-world is an embodied engagement with a world that ‘opens’ itself to us through our concerns and projects, there can be no reason to think that it will be disclosed only when we take stock and reflect. On the contrary, unless its features are revealed in a more ‘proximal’ way, there would be nothing to take stock of and reflect upon. If so, it must be wrong to suppose that reason is the faculty which discovers how the world is and passion merely the arena in which our subjective reactions to this discovery are played out.

Above, I highlighted these sentences: “Confronted with the broken toy, one child takes it to bits to examine it while another flies into a temper. The first deals with the recalcitrant object practically, the other ‘magically’. So reason and passion can come to seem incompatible strategies for coping with the world.”

“Design” has always been a sharply ambiguous word, and the ambiguity has always split along these two strategies for coping with object-recalcitrance.

When engineers, and those who think in the manner of engineers (using the philosophy of technik) say the word “design”, the emphasis is usually on the practical aspects of objects.

But when “creatives” use the word “design”, the emphasis is on the passionate and magical. The goal is to use sensory and symbolic means to aesthetically and emotionally frame some artifact to crystalize within a user’s or customer’s worldview to stand apart (de-) as significant (-sign).

The trend in design is definitely toward a seamless de-severing of these two coping strategies, and instead coordinating them to return us to a smooth integration of “the elements of understanding and mood, belief and desire, which are integrated in our engagement with the world.”

But this very project of practical-magical integration requires designers to experiment with philosophy, and “frame” or “concept model” problems in multiple ways — not only to render problems more soluble on a practical level (as some designers think), but to invest the designed artifact with de-significance capable of crystallizing (or at its most magical, dissolving and recrystallizing) a person’s understanding around that artifact — and orienting them to that artifact conceptually, practically and axiosly. (I’m playing with back-forming “axiosly” from “axiology”, to mean pertaining to values. That it is uncomfortably close to the word “anxiously” is a feature, not a bug.)

The most powerful designs force rethinking of entire fields of life — for instance how iPhone put phone design in its own orbit by making it retroactively obvious that the iPhone approach is objectively the right way to design a phone.

(Rant: Upon seeing iPhone, most people were induced to reconceive what a phone can and ought to be. Seeing it, and grokking it, everyone’s understanding reshuffled to accommodate it. After the reconception and reshuffling, it no longer seemed to be an invention; it was a discovery, and iPhone was just a good execution of this newly discovered archetype. And you know, come to think of it, we all knew this truth all along. There was this precursor, and that one. Never mind that nobody did, really, or they would have tried harder to actualize it. But truth is, most people are too subjectively oblivious to catch what happened, and all that stands out to them are little objective novelties graspable by the grubby hands of IP law. Apple could only sue Google over design trifles like rounded-cornered rectangles and elastic scroll behaviors, because its primary innovation — the idea that demanded imagination, faith and perseverance to actualize — was too deep and too subjectively contagious to protect. How else can a phone be designed? It takes a Steve Jobs to hear that question as more than rhetorical and to venture an answer.)

*

In my years of design, I have done numerous small, local philosophies and noticed that every really good design brief works like a spell on design teams to make perspective-shifting useful things. I call this philosophical craft “precision inspiration”.

And doing this work, day in and day out, has gradually shifted my own sense of truth, of reality, of practicality, of possibility — most of all of the permanent possibility of reconception of every thing and everything, which has cast a spell on me and made me an exnihilist.

Philosophy is designable. Philosophy-guided practice — praxis — is designable.

When we design praxis, we also redesign our overall experience of life — our enworldment.

My ambition is to be a praxis designer.

Paul Rand, classic sabra

Several years ago, I bought Paul Rand’s book just to have his most famous quote represented in my sacred library in its proper fetish-form (hardback, of course): “Everything is design. Design is everything.”

*

I just watched a video of Steve Jobs reflecting on working with Paul Rand.

Jobs’s description of Rand’s designerly sabra personality is especially inspiring to me right now. I resolve to harden and spike my exterior to establish respect first. Later, if people prove themselves respectable, I will dole out friendship in small portions until I find the edges of their abilities, generosity and presumptuousness.

Not all colleagues are peers. Not all buddies are friends. I keep these distinctions very clear in my own head, and now I’m going to help others stay clear on them as well.

*

When children are misparented to believe that their own ignorant convictions are just as valid as the hard-won wisdom of older people — (or more valid, because the convictions they indoctrinated to uncritically accept are fresh and new!) — someone’s got to reparent them. Our culture cannot sustain another generation of permachildren.

Gen X was raised in conditions of Peter-Pandemonium — and it falls on us to recover and reinvent adulthood so young people can see why maturity is desirable.

*

I’m worried that if I don’t get my social topology straightened out, I risk becoming an everse-sabra.

Design activism

All design praxis is guided by a glorious hybrid of existentialist and pragmatist ideas, interbred and naturally selected for maximum effectiveness. This is true for monocentric design disciplines (UX, CX, and all the other X-disciplines, where designers focus on the experience of a single person encountering a designed thing) — and it even more  true for polycentric design disciplines (where networks of people interact with one another and with things, each having an intentionally formed experience of that network and its constituent elements, some of whom are fellow persons). Today, service design is the most prominent example of polycentric design.* (See note below.)

Any design project potentially conveys this praxis (and a taste of its enworldment) to those who actively participate in the project, and for that reason all design projects are, to some degree, interesting to me.

But the design projects that are most fascinating are ones where the designed systems themselves (not only the designing of the system) serve the propagation of design praxis and designerly enworldment.

The latter is a kind of activism I find inspiring.

For this reason, I am prioritizing educational service design, in collaboration with my wife Susan.

My goal: I want people to approach all problems as polycentric design problems.

I want to do this by 1) clarifying, developing and articulating the tacit philosophy of polycentric design praxis, 2) by involving as many people as possible in doing and learning polycentric design, 3) encouraging design practitioners to use design praxis as their primary life praxis (most importantly in their political thinking!), and 4) by redesigning education to teach polycentric design praxis, and thereby conserve and perpetually reform liberal democracy.

*

“Everything is design. Design is everything.” — Paul Rand


  * Note: I believe the world is badly in need of other forms of polycentric design where interactions are less hierarchical, more equal, and where roles in a system are not clearly defined in consumer and provider terms, and less amenable to being characterized in terms of service. (Service designers might object and offer redescriptions of social systems using service logic, but to me — and, I hypothesize, most people outside the service design profession — this will feel like a reductionistic stretch. Polycentric design is designing for pluralism.

Re-cranking the writing machine

(I’m trying to get back to publishing my ideas, even when they are far from perfect. For some reason I’ve been inclined to leave most of what I write private, but I’m going to make myself start putting things out there again. )


My immersion in the philosophical work of Jan Zwicky has given me a much sharper sense of what I want my book to 1) be and 2) do.

I want it to be a beautiful and dense work — of the kind I, myself, love. As much as I’d love readers to understand and be persuaded by my thoughts, explanatory or persuasive writing is not what I enjoy doing. Even more importantly, it is not what I love reading. I put enormous effort into cracking into difficult ideas —  if I sense something momentous and sublime in them. I am bored and impatient with books that take on too much of the task of explaining and persuading. I don’t want that understanding done for me. I don’t like reading examples and stories. I’ll find my own meaning, connections and applications.

My book will be as simple as possible, but for the sake of aesthetics, not for making things easy for lazy, complacent, merely curious readers. Those lacking urgency and pain-tolerance are invited to give up. That is a virtue, not a flaw.

I want my book to do several things.

  1. I want by book to defend that mode of understanding that Zwicky calls lyric and connects with gestalt psychology. Lyric understanding responds to reality in a way independent of, irreducible to, but intimately related with the form of thinking she calls analytic. She acknowledges the value of analytic thought, but believes it is currently failing to coexist with lyric understanding, one result of which is seeing nature as something to dominate. She outlines a different relationship — one which balances lyric sensitivity to the real with analytic practicality (and for beings like us an unavoidable necessity) in a stance she calls “domestic”. I have a different vocabulary from hers, and I think it has some powerful application in everyday social life, especially social life infused with design practice. I think design represents not only a way to produce domestic artifacts, but a way to think domestically. I want to design a simple, practical philosophy equipped with sharp, hard, gleaming vocabulary that can be deployed with confidence, force and grace against analytic hegemony — (that mindset I’ve been deriding as “wordworld”) — a language-dominated worldview that according to itself is justified to reject as unreal, or at least irrelevant, whatever cannot be made explicit, said, and, ideally, measured.
  2. I will insist that when words and logic fail to do justice to our intuitive relationship reality, it is the words and logic that must yield — ideally to new and better words and logic that do. Perhaps the words and logic will conform to the intuitive sense, or perhaps word and logic will provide new intuitive access (that is, it will spark a conversion). But both the intuitive sense of reality and the language and logic must be satisfied, neither dominating the other. What absolutely must go is the this modernistic conceit that we can change our nature and sense of reality through brute effort. Whatever we do — whatever we are coerced to do for a long time — will eventually become habit and seem natural.  Change is possible — profound change is possible — but it must, must, MUST answer to our lyric sense, not rape it with logical and conceptual constructs.

  • This is true for art. For instance, serial music is purely synthetic production, and its embrace by the classical music profession helped sink its relevance. It did not become familiar and beautiful to any but a small, determined and concept-bound few.
  • It is true for technology. People have lost the new perspective on digital devices that Steve Jobs taught us (or at least some of us) — that the difference that really makes a difference is experience. We’ve relapsed into spec lists, feature lists, superficial styling. Consequently, the experience of digital interfaces in use (what “user experience” used to mean) have degraded precipitously. Because, for many, these digital interfaces serve as interfaces to much of life itself (we interact with each other, transact through them and learn most of what we know about the world through them) — our lives have degraded with it. Indeed, we ourselves have degraded in ways we are too degraded to notice.
  • And it is true for the ways we think. I do not mean what we think. I do not mean our facility with logic or math. I mean how we intellectually relate ourselves to reality. This intellectual relating produces truth (of varying quality) but is not reducible to truth content. Truth is instaurated in the process of collaborating with reality, not constructed according to our meager stock of concepts and our hopes. To believe truth is purely constructed and that reality will eventually conform to what we construct could be called toxic Apollinianism.

Not every truth construct or art construct or art construct will become, with time and practice, second-nature. Forced exposure or use of a purely synthetic construct will only desensitize our intuitions and alienate us from reality until we no longer expect intuitive contact or miss it if it is absent. The consequence of too much alienation from conceptivity, with too much reliance on synthetic substitutes is nihilism and anomie. I believe this is the core cause of our current cultural crisis. We do far too much synthetic thinking-about, and far too little intuitive interacting-with or participating-in. Consequently reality has become unreal to us. It feels horrible, but the worst afflicted — our children — don’t know there is any other way to be.

  1. I want to lay out a framework I’ve been using for the last fifteen years to think about design research and craft.
  • Like art, design is a coordination of meaningful wholes and parts (which are themselves wholes): this is conceptive. It “together-takes” new givens, which can then be thought about synthetically.
  • Like engineering, design is a coordination of functional parts into systematic wholes: this is synthetic understanding. It explicitly “together-puts” givens into theories, arguments, proofs and so on, which sometimes but often cannot be conceived as new givens.
  • Design, unlike art and engineering, attempts to accomplish both orders at once. When we do this successfully, we achieve what I believe Zwicky calls “domesticity”. I’ve suggested to her that the book I am writing is an outline of domestic philosophy.

I’m ending here. This is pretty bad, but it will help me rebuild momentum.

Voluminosity

When I first moved to Atlanta, I saw it primarily through the windsheilds of cars and windows of buildings.

During my brief but transformative residence in Toronto I learned to rely on my bicycle as my primary mode of transportation.

Returning to Atlanta, and experiencing it from my bicycle changed my conception of its space. What had been a network of linear tracks and decision-points, connecting interior with interior, was now revealed to be a wide-open terrain of free movement. The linear network was densely crisscrossed with shortcuts across alleyways, parking lots, lawns and wooded areas. Whatever path I chose was lined with sounds and smells and faces. Flowing with traffic was not enforced. I could notice, interact, stop, pull over, take in where I am.

But that isn’t the end of it. My new alertness to birds has lifted this free plane above the ground, and raised it up into the trees and over the buildings. It has also filled up the interstices of all possible paths, flowing into gullies, gardens, underbrush and hidden places. It turns out that Atlanta is a reverberant, living volume. I cannot tune it out, and I feel crazy.

*

There are so many worlds in this world, populating it, radiating intelligence into it. Myriads within myriads — a zillion everythings.

Loss and honesty

Jan Zwicky:

Loss is perhaps the ultimate philosophical problem — and death, only incidentally and to the extent it is experienced as loss by those who remain alive. The great absolute architectonics of systematic thought are intended to secure the world against loss. Maturity is achieved when things are let go, left to be on their own, allowed their specificity — for when things become most fully themselves, they also become most fully losable. To abandon classical system is to accept, in the sense of comprehend, the ontological necessity of loss. The more precious a thing is, the greater becomes its power to hurt us by simply being absent. We end up ‘leaving each thing as it is’ in two senses of the word ‘leave’.

This is agonizingly true.

I have come to detest self-evasion: abandonment of our first-person post, and flying to the safety of third-person.

I reject treating our unique selves and the unique, irreplaceable, precious people and things we love as mere types or identities.

I refuse to generalize and depersonalize in order to distribute the weight of intense, focused caring out into out speculative views-from-everywhere-at-once, better known as views-from-nowhere, but which I prefer to call views-from-anywhere-but-I.

*

I really, really hate it when people smile down at me from the heights of their wise serenity and assure me that Jesus or the Buddha or Marx or Science or Nature or any other gnostic vendor has washed away all their pain.

As if pain were the mark of insufficient wisdom.

Here is what I want to say to say back:

“If you hurt, please don’t pretend you don’t hurt — that you’ve shed the pain you still plainly carry.

And cut the phony bravado — you are afraid to hurt.

But we are all afraid, and perhaps we ought to be afraid — not because the world is scary and fear is the most intelligent response — but because fear is the honest and decent response of anyone who still loves.

Don’t add the suffering of shame to your pain and your dread of pain. Bear it bravely and honestly.”

Honesty — most of all subjective honesty — unenforceable, voluntary, undisprovable honesty — this is what matters most to me.

Shame is the enemy of subjective honesty.

When I pick up the scent of subjective dishonesty or subjective insensitivity so out of touch with itself that no longer even knows if it is lying or not (only whether a claim is defensible or not), I can no longer do much but feel a sad distance — a distance that only polite kindness can traverse, from one me to another, through a we-less vacuum. You need people, even yourself, to be easy come, easy go.

*

Maybe someday some miraculous epiphany will enter my soul and remove all my pain.

But I promise, I will never, ever pretend to be there until I am actually there.

I will be proud of my subjective honesty until I find something better to be proud of.

*

This is a crucial passage. I love this book.

Filled with birdsong

I am back to actively conceiving chaos as too many simultaneous orders.

Those orders are there to be selected or filtered, recognized or discognized, to be systematized or articulated or relegated to background noise.

Every enworldment includes and excludes, project, rejects, models, compares.

*

Here is some chaos…

*

Weeks ago, I read a passage that referred to a nightingale’s song. I realized that I had no experience of that song to recall, and that this idea was incomplete. Sadly, all I could connect it to was a passage for Voegelin I read years ago and loved, but which did not move me to listen:

The nightingale still sings its heart-rending, throat-filled song against Death. The significance a musical composition has for me is determined by the degree to which it brings back again this sweet state of anguish between Death and Life.

I found a three-hour video of nightingale song and left it playing for two hours.

Now, I find I’ve lost my ability to tune our birdsong. It is constant and it fills the air with alien intelligence.

This reminds me of an old reflection on participating in Torah study:

In Torah Study, the personalities gathered in the room sparkle against the ground of the text. Insight by insight, the flat black sky deepens into limitless space as it fills up with stars.

Space flooded, saturated with radiant points of intelligibility.

(My friend Callen said that this dispersal of alien intelligence is what pulled him into obsessive birding. I connected this with the memory of an anole, emerald with alarm, skiddling across the road in front of my bike, and wondering about that anole’s intention and experience. Birds multiply these points of intention and experience, and scatter them into the depths of the air, audibly present or absent, whenever we listen out for them.)

This conception makes me feel the inconceivable potentiality of God much more immediately than other more traditional religious notions, but I feel sure that the faith behind this conception is the same — and I want it to be.

Why? I do not want to be alone, neither here nor now.

*

If you think yourself far enough into isolation, you will want to think yourself back to communion. Because you are human.

*

Human beings need to share faith. Sharing faith puts our roots in the soil.

We do not need to share beliefs.

A striving to agree on beliefs can break commonality of faith.

Worship is a matter of faith, and theology is a matter of beliefs.

Let’s stop calling religions “belief systems”.

Let’s stop theorizing about what theory can never comprehend.

Rather, let’s take our place in infinitude and see how much commonality we can radiate.

*

The glory of shared faith is the efflorescence of divergent ideas, ideas that can feel themselves emanating from something shared — in the overlapping harmonizing and intriguingly cacophonizing interpretations of something revered together as transcendent to any one mind.

*

I think I might leave my headphones at home next time I ride my bicycle, and instead bring binoculars.

*

Facts cannot nourish us. Facts about facts about facts positively starve us. Consumer politics, personal politics, the craving for political righteousness is soul pica.

This desperation to feel ourselves to be good people… why? For a time I tried not being a good person. I wanted others to stop finding it so easy to trust me. And I learned from that.

*

Peter Brook, via Jan Zwicky:

When Ted Hughes first came to Paris to a session of our work. we improvised for him on random syllables, then on a piece by Aeschylus. He at once began his own experiments, searching to create first of all roots of language and then what he described as “great blocks of sound.”

From here to Orghast was of course a long and intricate journey. But in taking on the incredible task of inventing a phonetic language, in an odd way Ted Hughes was doing what poets do all the time. Every poet works through several semi-conscious levels – let’s call them A to Z. At level Z energies are boiling mside hun, but they are completely out of the range of his perceptions. At level A they have been captured and shaped into a series of words on paper. In between, at levels from B to Y, the poet is half-hearing, half-makmg syllables that drop in and out of swirls of inner movement. Sometimes, he perceives these prewords and preconcepts as moving forms, sometmies as murmurs, as patterns of sound that are on the brink of words, sometimes as musical values that are becoming recognizable and precise. But in fact, they are not strangers to him — he lives with them all the time. The great originality and daring of Ted Hughes lay in working openly in an area that gained a control and freedom that makes the subsequent Orghast impossible to separate into sense and sound.

So many of us live here.

We can think in the nebulous reality of unformatted ideas.

We can also assemble formatted ideas into new shapes, and there is novelty here, too.

But I am both tormented and intrigued by the ideas that are unrecognized, because they haven’t even yet been cognized — inaccessible even to metaphor, because there is not yet a distinct This to liken to That.

*

We know cities by strands of road. Alongside the road are homes and buildings, each with an interior. My job has brought me to some interiors, where I have been taught new ways to understand by occupants of these secret spaces. I never once heard the birdsong in the yards, but now it is there.

*

There are worlds within the world
Within the world there are worlds

The situation is the universe of man
As the measure of all things
Understand that you are another world in miniature
And that in you there are the sun, the moon and also stars
Man as the messenger of being
By analogy flesh and bones of man derive from earth
His bloody from water, his breath from air
And body heat from fire.

*

The first time I sat in meditation, my mind was filled with random babble.

From time to time, a sound would snap into morphemic recognition, and then roll into a word, a thought, a memory, and then I was no longer observing my breath.

One faintly reminded me of some Star Trek and a vivid image of the U.S.S Enterprise flying through space jolted me back to attention,

*

Truth comes pre-formatted. Truth must be encased in the concepts and logic of the time.

If you do not adopt the format, your nonsense will fall on deaf ears and deafening arguments.

The format is the colosseum. Arm yourself, and prepare for battle. You will die by your confusion.

*

I really, really hate argument. I hate doing it. I hate reading it.

I want to live more “indexically”, as Garfinkel put it.

See?

*

Stop fighting. It is ok to have been wrong. We don’t have to be good. Share faith.

Taste in scales

Jan Zwicky speaks of resonant relationships among wholes. These wholes are not clarified through analysis, nor are they built up piece by piece through synthesis. In my preferred vocabulary, I would say that they are wholes conceived as given. Their meaning comes not from the atomic bits that compose them, but from the articulate whole that comprises them. The articulations that relationally differentiate participants-within-wholes interpenetrate and crisscross all that is, producing a complex field of possible likeness, each a resonance, a taken-together given.

In the past I have visualized the relationship of the synthesized truth with the conceived truth — of the composed world with the comprised world — of the systematized with the articulate — as an overlaid top-down and bottom-up triangle.

*

This week I have been revisiting an old theme connected with service design: altitude and granularity.

One of the formative intellectual developments of my generation was chaos theory. We came of age when computers became capable of visualizing fractal geometric figures, and when James Gleick’s Chaos was published. For many Gen-X nerds, nonlinearity, the butterfly effect, and scalar self-similarity became part of our basic conceptual equipment at the precise age when nerds self-equip.

So for me, with hours of playing with the Mandelbrot Set in my memory, zooming in and out and noting what wholes and parts come into prominence within a visual field as it is magnified or reduced, altitude and granularity are experience-near concepts and I see them everywhere in everything. And I am seeing them in Zwicky’s observations of resonance.

Every altitude of inquiry produces different salient conceptions.

Imagine specificity and generality of a subject presented in different kinds of text. Compare a detailed ethnomethodological study with a book about ethnomethodology, with a sociology textbook. Each looks upon its subject from a particular altitude, and handles ideas of particular types (a particular case, a specific method, a general field of inquiry), putting them into systematic or articulate relation, each with a certain grain and texture and tone.

I’ve found that my own mind responds well to some altitudes and granularities better than others. They are very precise — I like to understand things up-close and at an interpersonal level. Sweeping histories that do not anchor in individual experience feel unreal to me. But great social trends that can be shown in terms of artistic style are real. I can absorb an aesthetic style and sense the enworldment that produces it. But discussion of social forces and policy conflicts — again unreal. Grand military history — meaningless. Geography defined by ecosystems or by societies subsisting on various natural resources — nebulous and vacant. A survey of the world’s religions — now the entire world is colorfully mapped. Stories of particular people in particular places. Borges snd Casares made Argentina real for me; Ben Okri, Nigeria.

It seems nothing in the world is real to me unless it is refracted through another person’s lived experience. Only enworldments enworld my world.

If information is presented objectively, out of reference from some particular person’s enworldment, it means nothing to me. The only science I care about is the science a real human scientist did — Robert Boyle, Ben Franklin, Lois Pasteur — so, thank you, STS. I cannot see science apart from the stories of people in laboratories or observatories, or working at desks, interacting with equipment a\that provides them obscure clues in the form of messy data, which they, like me, struggle to bring into persuasive order. The persuasive order — the “science” — that is no foundation for making sense of this world we inhabit!

Years ago, Nietzsche consoled me by painting this portrait:

The truly efficient and successful scholars could one and all be described as ’employees’. When in their youth they had perfected their skills and crammed their memories, when hand and eye had acquired certainty, they were directed by an older scholar to a place in science where their qualities would be useful; later on, after they themselves had become accomplished enough to detect the gaps and faults in their science, they posted themselves of their own accord to where they were needed. These natures one and all exist for the sake of science: but there are rarer, rarely successful and wholly mature natures ‘for the sake of whom science exists’ — at least that is what they themselves think — : frequently unpleasant, frequently arrogant, frequently wrong-headed but almost always to a certain extent bewitching men. They are not employees, neither are they employers, they avail themselves of that which these have laboured to ascertain and do so with a certain princely composure and rarely with more than a modicum of praise: as though, indeed, those employees and employers belonged to a lower species of beings. And yet they possess precisely the same qualities as these employers and employees do, and sometimes even in an inferior state of development: they are, moreover, characterized by a narrow limitedness foreign to the former, on account of which it is impossible to appoint them to a post or see in them usable instruments — they can live only in their own atmosphere and on their own soil. This limitedness proffers them all of a science that ‘belongs to them’, that is to say all they can bear home with them to their atmosphere and dwelling; they fancy they are collecting together their scattered ‘property’. If they are prevented from constructing their own nest they perish like houseless birds; unfreedom is phthisis to them. If they cultivate individual regions of science in the way the others do, it is always only those regions where the fruit and seeds they themselves need will prosper; what is it to them if science as a whole has regions untilled and ill cultivated? They lack all impersonal interest in a problem; just as they themselves are personalities through and through, so all their insights and acquirements in the field of knowledge coalesce together into a personality, into a living multiplicity whose individual parts are dependent on one another, cleave to one another, are nourished by the same food, and as a whole possesses its own atmosphere and its own odour. — Natures such as this produce, with their personality-informed structures of knowledge, that illusion that a science (or even the whole of philosophy) is finished and has reached its goal; it is the life in their structure that performs this magic, which has at times been very fateful for science and misleading for those able and efficient workers of the spirit just described, though at other times, when aridity and exhaustion have reigned, it has acted as a balm and like the breath of a cool, refreshing oasis. — The name usually given to such men is philosophers.

Free

Anything of great importance is pristinely voluntary. We can conceive its truth or we can leave it unconceived and inconceivable. It is entirely our choice.

Even acknowledging the importance of importance is voluntary. Anyone who wishes, can see only unimportance.

We all have our reasons, and it is important to give each their own.

*

At first I expected every decent person to engage with me in philosophy.

Then I expected only my good friends to engage with me in philosophy.

Then I expected only my good philosophical friends to engage with me in philosophy.

I now expect only those who freely choose it to engage with me in philosophy.

Anyone who doesn’t want to is free not to.

I think I even feel this way, now.

Let’s see if it sticks.

Uniquely qualified

Each of us has our own good reason to believe we are uniquely qualified to teach the rest of humanity about reality — not least of which is the fact that each of us can truthfully say: I was born into the center of existence and have experienced reality from that privileged vantage point my whole life.

This is why — though many other people know many different things — when it comes to what really matters, what is most relevant, what gets to the heart of it all, you are the authority. You concentrated on the one thing needful. This is why wise people come to you for wisdom.

Embracing abnormality

A friend of mine sent me an online autism test and asked me what my thoughts on it were. It inspired a pretty decent email:

Here’s where my mind went: I want a test to measure organizational autism. Back in the early 00s I used to say that UX is a cure for corporate autism, until I got worried that might upset someone. But it is true! We impose rules on organizations that require a level of explicitness that cause them to become mind-blind behaviorists. These rules are important, of course, but they come with tradeoffs that we should be aware of and weigh against the benefits.

And I guess that brings me to a second thought: I think we have become too quick to diagnose difference. We live in really strange times, where we’ve forgotten that normal isn’t necessarily good and abnormal isn’t necessarily bad. When I was a kid I was into punk rock, and we thought abnormal was the greatest thing ever. I’m pretty sure a lot of what I was into was aestheticized autism, OCD, and other quirks, all of which were mined and made beautiful or at least intriguing. If you ever want to watch a touching story of redemption, watch End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones, and get ready to cry.

Everything on this Earth is tradeoffs — every room in this palace of life is furnished differently — there is no single standard of goodness. I think some of what is plotted on the autism spectrum I’d prefer to call an inflexibly quirky personality, not a disorder. And when inflexible quirks are put to work generating technical or artistic innovations, that becomes a feature of a personality, not a bug.

So, that challenges my first thought. Cure for corporate autism? Maybe some organizations ought to be aspie. Some people ought to be aspie. Therapists and designers can help individuals or organizations make tradeoffs toward empathy, where “get organized” self-help books (like Checklist Manifesto) or OE/Six Sigma consultants can help people make tradeoffs toward more autistic virtues. So that’s another thing.

I guess I want to relativize mental health and most other social norms so people aren’t so freaked out and obsessed with being called normal. I want us to get back to the Gen-X perversity of treasuring precisely our abnormalities.

Rivendell

After 20+ years of intense yearning I finally got my ultimate bicycle, a Rivendell.

I love beautiful objects, especially beautiful useful objects. This is why I am a designer.

But the most beautiful and most useful object of all is the bicycle. Inconceivable amounts of intelligence, love and effort — heart, and soul and strength —  have been poured into perfecting the diamond frame bicycle by innumerable passionate people.

The bicycle is the ultimate object. And the Rivendell is the ultimate exemplar of the ultimate object.

 

What makes Rivendells so special is the old-school fabrication, which uses lugs to join steel tubes together. The artistry is stunning.

But the significance of Rivendell goes even further. The bicycle and the words of the bicycle’s designer,  Grant Peterson, gave me my first deep reconception of an object.

It was a conversion experience. Before, the conversion, I wanted a minimalist bicycle fabricated from the highest tech materials. But then I read what Peterson had to say, and Non-Rivendell bicycles were magically transformed into variously deficient approximations of Rivendells. Rivendells became symbolic of what I care about.

My overall aesthetic changed. My preference shifted from pristine, unadorned euclidian mind-forms to symbolically-ornamented heart-forms. A beneficiary of this change was Susan, who was suddenly liberated from modernist austerity, and freed to transform our house into the odd, colorful, semi-psychedelic warmth cocoon it is today.

This experience gave me my first glimpse of what design can be and do, not only with physical forms, but with conceptions. Later, many of the key ideas Grant Peterson demonstrated were articulated by Christopher Alexander as life-changing general principles of design that guide my practice today.

———

Here are some of the more memorable things Grant Peterson said that got into my heart. 

This:

We love lugs. We don’t build frames without them. We like the look, the art, the way they’re made, and we like designing smart, beautiful, and unique ones. We also like knowing that a Rivendell, Atlantis, or Heron frame is unmistakably itself beneath the paint, because the lugs identify it. Fifty and even a hundred and fifty years from now, when all of today’s frames have been retired or repainted or rusted away or whatever, a dumpster diver will come upon a paintless, decal-less Rivendell or Atlantis or Heron, take it to a bicycle historian, and there won’t be any doubt what kind of frame it is. That notion may seem silly to you, but it’s a small part of what makes lugged frames special for a lot of people. They have a face and a personality that is unique. No big deal, maybe, but it’s there.

And this:

“Form follows function” works for nature, but too often with people, it’s used as an excuse to rush to market something that’s fully functional but still not so good looking.

(Have you noticed that old things usually look good? Manhole covers, typewriters, ’50s station wagons, chairs, hand-saw handles, buildings, bells, letter openers, kitchen appliances, almost anything. They were designed slowly, on a real drawing board, by people who were part industrial designer, part artist, part engineer. When you mix those qualities with manual involvement and patience, what finally hatches usually looks good.)

When it comes to bicycle frames, we like them to look low-key from a distance and interesting up close. Lugs look good to us, and a little fanciness is fine, too. We want a Rivendell frame to be recognizable, even if a robber steals it and repaints it, and our signature lugs guarantee that.

It’s hard to dwell on points such as appearance without coming off like a snob; and rest assured we do see the beauty in rusty, homely, utility bikes that get ridden and help Save the Planet, etc. But at some point in the design and building of your frame, we make some decisions that affect aesthetics, and although we aren’t the final arbiters of good taste, we know what we like, and always look after the frame.

 

Highlights from Susan’s and my weekly conversation

Every Saturday, Susan and I have a deep conversation. This week’s was short but momentus. I want to list some of the highlights.

  1. Susan asked about Vipassana (Buddhist insight meditation) and how it relates to her Jewish faith. As happens so often, she drew an explanation from me that simply did not exist until she made space for its existence through the intelligence of her questions. I advised her to think of the concentration she would develop and maintain for maybe no more than a few precious minutes out the  hundred-plus hours she’ll spend seated in meditation as Genesis 0:0 – the preconceptive divine spark that existed the moment before Genesis 1:1, before “God began creating heaven and earth,” when “the earth was void and desolate,” and “there was darkness on the face of the deep, and the spirit of God moved over the waters.” From there, she can witness regenesis.
  2. We discussed the two most common enceptions, which tend to project as metaphysical objectifications, materialism and idealism. She asked if either was more likely to be sociopathic. I don’t think they are more or less likely, but the form of sociopathy differs. Idealist sociopaths tend to become solipsistic and to believe the meaning they experience is the only one that exists or matters. Materialist sociopaths tend to become nihilistic and to believe there is no meaning, that nothing is true and anything is permitted.
  3. I finally caught the deep connection between everting objectivism and the idea of reenworldment. This is extremely unlikely to make any sense, but I’m recording it here just to mark the insight: Those intermediate conceptions where our differing understandings of the world are found are anchored at two points and suspended between them. One one end is the primary conceptions that give us our concrete experiences of reality (our primary givens), and on the other is the ultimate enception that gives us our sense of reality as a whole (our ultimate given). As long as these two points remain anchored, the intermediate conceptions that bridge primary conceptions with that enception are held firm, and are unlikely to change at any depth. Conceiving ambinity – not just having a synthetic grasp of it, but really spontaneously, immediately intuiting it – is our best opportunity for loosening and dissolving intermediate conceptions and their givens, so they can be reconceived.
  4. In ambinity, we are no longer required to subject primary conceptions to the standards of any one metaphysic. They are permitted to simply be primary. If we see something and experience it as good, that is what makes it good, and an account that justifies its goodness according to a theory of morals is not necessary.
  5. I repeated an old idea, that today seemed new: “Things are not your fault. But you are responsible. You have response-ability. That is what obligates you, not some debt on a moral balance sheet.”

Stephen Savings Time

I’m falling back two hours and setting my biological clock to Stephen Savings Time so I can do writing as a near full-time job. This means my evenings will start winding down at 7:30pm so I can be up and ready to clock in at 4:30am.

Until I get this done, I will be saying “no” to a lot of invitations. Please do not take this, or the rest of my monomania, personally.

*

Writing this book is inspiring me return to many older ideas, to recall them, recollect them, and to reintegrate them into a clearly conceived unity. The process is forcing me to prioritize what I include, and, for the sake of simplicity and clarity, make exclusions. This pruning and shaping is cleansing. I’ve accumulated a lot of ideas and associations, some fully comprehended and internalized, some only synthetically known about, but not intrinsic to how I think. Writing is forcing me to make distinctions between what is essential, and what is dispensable, and I am feeling it not only in my mind, but in my heart and my body.

*

Much of what I am recollecting is from the early days of my life-changing encounter with Nietzsche, so he is freshly on my mind. His words are especially resonant now, especially these:

Is there a more holy condition than that of pregnancy? To do all we do in the unspoken belief that it has somehow to benefit that which is coming to be within us! — Has to enhance its mysterious worth, the thought of which fills us with delight! In this condition we avoid many things without having to force ourselves very hard! We suppress our anger, we offer the hand of conciliation: our child shall grow out of what is gentlest and best. We are horrified if we are sharp or abrupt: suppose it should pour a drop of evil into the dear unknown’s cup of life! Everything is veiled, ominous, we know nothing of what is taking place, we wait and try to be ready. At the same time, a pure and purifying feeling of profound irresponsibility reigns in us almost like that of the auditor before the curtain has gone up — it is growing, it is coming to light: we have no right to determine either its value or the hour of its coming. All the influence we can exert lies in keeping it safe. ‘What is growing here is something greater than we are’ is our most secret hope: we prepare everything for it so that it may come happily into the world: not only everything that may prove useful to it but also the joyfulness and laurel-wreaths of our soul. — It is in this state of consecration that one should live! It is a state one can live in! And if what is expected is an idea, a deed — towards every bringing forth we have essentially no other relationship than that of pregnancy and ought to blow to the winds a presumptuous talk of ‘willing’ and ‘creating’. This is ideal selfishness: continually to watch over and care for and and to keep our soul still, so that our fruitfulness shall come to a happy fulfillment! Thus, as intermediaries, we watch over and care for to the benefit of all; and the mood in which we live, this mood of pride and gentleness, is a balm which spreads far around us and on to restless souls too. — But the pregnant are strange! So, let us be strange too, and let us not hold it against others if they too have to be so! And even if the outcome is dangerous and evil: let us not be less reverential towards that which is coming to be than worldly justice is, which does not permit a judge or executioner to lay hands on one who is pregnant!

Reflections on Vipassana

Susan has been accepted into a Vipassana course, and now she is contemplating what she has gotten into. She keeps trying to imagine what it will be like.

I keep telling her it is impossible to imagine. The first time I went, in 1997, everything I anticipated was irrelevant to what actually happened. It didn’t even occur to me to imagine what turned out to be most important.

But strangely, what is most important in the experience seems impossible to remember.

I know this only because, registering for my second course, I tried again to anticipate what it would be like, this time with the benefit of experience, but, once again was shocked at how different the reality was from the anticipation, and additionally shocked at my inability to anticipate. The third time, I tried to factor the shock into my anticipation, and that also failed. It was the same with all subsequent courses.

The actual experience of Vipassana is never anything like even the most informed anticipations of it.

Perhaps our memories record only certain aspects of experience.

*

Another strange thing about Vipassana concerns time. Time behaves extremely strangely when you are deeply absorbed and have no visual and few auditory reference points. The passing of fifteen minutes is difficult to discern from an hour. The impulse to look at a clock and to get reoriented within time can become very distracting.

My Jewish view on this is that eternity can be very uncomfortable before you get used to it.

*

The strangest part of Vipassana is the question of agency. I sit down determined to observe my breath for a full hour, to keep my attention focused solely and entirely on the sensation of in-breath, out-breath. I’m observing it, observing it, observing it – then I’m not. And not only am I not now, I haven’t been observing for some time. Who stopped observing? Where was I? I was not there.

This insight hit me hard at my first course, and it arrived with a depression. I’d wasted ten days of my life, doing everything wrong. It took a day of intense meditation, observing the physical sensations of depression, for it to break apart and dissipate.

Eventually, I adjusted to the insight that our own being is intermittent. We pop into and out of existence all the time. 

This is easily explained away if you need to. Our default objectivist orientation is amply-equipped to subdue every trace of the profound strangeness of existence with materialist just-so stories. But I know what it’s like to be dead.

*

Susan asked me: Do you suppose you got more from Vipassana than you know?

I think I did. But what I gained was not primarily information. It was something quite different.

What I got was an inclination to notice things about our own subjectivity that doesn’t play nice with how we normally think.

For instance, I was able to observe that when we are around some other people, aspects of our subjectivity dissociate from ourselves, and connect up with corresponding aspects of another other, so that there is more subjective cohesion between two people than within either person. We notice this most in love, but it happens all the time.

When we become jealous, we can feel the cohesion we have someone else – someone with whom we are someone – being strained by an interfering coherence they are forming with a stranger. We can feel in our hearts an existential threat, because this other with whom we are ourselves, is becoming estranged from us as they become someone different with this stranger. Part of the ground of our very self quakes and shifts, and we feel jealous.

Viewing this situation from an objectivist perspective, we must explain away jealousy as an attempt to possess another person. But when we understand subjectively, we can see better that we are only trying to maintain our own conditions of belonging.

Subjects are not what we think they are. We are not what we think we are.

Anatta: not-self. 

*

Before I went to Vipassana, I had a lot of ideas about what might I might undergo, what it might be like, and what might happen to me.

After going several times, I let go of many of these things, but I had nothing to replace it with. I still found it impossible to conceptualize what might happen, and so I could only participate and try to remain receptive.

It took many years to see that this concept-suspending participation was itself a mode of understanding – an alternative to objective comprehension.

Constantly translating the uncanny experiences of Vipassana back into the terms of the objectivist philosophy I held at the time, in order to make them comprehensible and compatible with conventional thought would have filtered out precisely the strangest and most consequential insights.

I could have said “Yeah, I keep forgetting how hard this is.”

I could have said “Yeah, you really lose your sense of time sitting there.”

I could have said “Yeah, we are just so absent-minded and so distractible.”

I could have said “Yeah, love makes us lose our minds.”

But I didn’t. I did my best to do full justice to what I experienced.

I reformed how I conceived truth to accommodate my experiences, rather than forcing my experiences to fit inside my existing conceptions. Rather than taming my strange experiences with conventional scientistic or spiritual explanations, I gave them a new environment.

At dawn, my lover comes to me and tells me of her dreams
With no attempts to shovel the
Glimpse into the ditch of what each one means
At times I think there are no words but these to tell what’s true
And there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden