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.

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Here is some chaos…

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

See?

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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.

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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.

The rough game

We have ideas we use for thinking, and we have ideas we think about.

We are normally only aware of the thoughts we think about. When someone asks us what our philosophy is, these are what we list. They are the objective content of our thinking.

But the ideas we use for thinking are far more consequential. It is with these ideas that we select what we think about, determine what makes sense and is true, relate the ideas we decide to integrate, and build out our sense of objective truth.

Let us call the ideas we think about and consider important and fundamental our “foreground philosophy”, and those ideas with which we think our foreground philosophy our “background philosophy”.

Most of us barely consider our background philosophy and focus exclusively on the foreground. We manipulate ideas, try out different ways to assemble and disassemble them and generally take our background philosophy as given.

Those who are aware of a background philosophy assume that our foreground philosophies in some way faithfully represent it, and don’t give the matter further thought. To think out the foreground philosophy is to bring one’s background philosophy to light, or bring it to the surface in the manner of depth psychology.

Very few of us suspect that a foreground philosophy differ drastically from its background philosophy, serving as a decoy or diversion, or as an attack-and-defense system to protect and preserve the background.

If we do become curious and venture to reflect on the background, we often make the mistake of the mirror-gazer who, seeing their own eye in the mirror, believes they now see how seeing happens. The foreground philosophy can see itself in the foreground, and believes it has looked into its background.

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If we do manage to think ideas that affect our background philosophy it is a very different experience from playing with foreground philosophy ideas. It is perplexing and intensely uncomfortable.

It isn’t for everyone.

The stakes feel much higher than they do when playing with foreground philosophy.

For some it no longer feels like play. The consequences are too significant.

But for others, the high-stakes game of background philosophy is the only game consequential enough to inspire their full engagement.

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Two passages from Nietzsche:

1.

In the writings of a hermit one always hears something of the echo of the wilderness, something of the murmuring tones and timid vigilance of solitude; in his strongest words, even in his cry itself, there sounds a new and more dangerous kind of silence, of concealment. He who has sat day and night, from year’s end to year’s end, alone with his soul in familiar discord and discourse, he who has become a cave-bear, or a treasure-seeker, or a treasure-guardian and dragon in his cave — it may be a labyrinth, but can also be a gold-mine — his ideas themselves eventually acquire a twilight-colour of their own, and an odor, as much of the depth as of the mold, something uncommunicative and repulsive, which blows chilly upon every passerby. The recluse does not believe that a philosopher — supposing that a philosopher has always in the first place been a recluse — ever expressed his actual and ultimate opinions in books: are not books written precisely to hide what is in us? — indeed, he will doubt whether a philosopher can have “ultimate and actual” opinions at all; whether behind every cave in him there is not, and must necessarily be, a still deeper cave: an ampler, stranger, richer world beyond the surface, an abyss behind every ground, beneath every “foundation”. Every philosophy is a foreground philosophy — this is a recluse’s verdict: “There is something arbitrary in the fact that he {the philosopher} came to a stand here, took a retrospect, and looked around; that he here laid his spade aside and did not dig any deeper — there is also something suspicious in it.” Every philosophy also conceals a philosophy; every opinion is also a lurking-place, every word is also a mask.

2.

The dangers for a philosopher’s development are indeed so manifold today that one may doubt whether this fruit can still ripen at all. The scope and the tower-building of the sciences has grown to be enormous, and with this also the probability that the philosopher grows weary while still learning or allows himself to be detained somewhere to become a “specialist” — so he never attains his proper level, the height for a comprehensive look, for looking around, for looking down. Or he attains it too late, when his best time and strength are spent — or impaired, coarsened, degenerated, so his view, his overall judgment does not mean much any more. It may be precisely the sensitivity of his intellectual conscience that leads him to delay somewhere along the way and to be late: he is afraid of the seduction to become a dilettante, a millipede, an insect with a thousand antennae {zum Tausendfuss und Tausend-Fuhlhorn}, he knows too well that whoever has lost his self-respect cannot command or lead in the realm of knowledge — unless he would like to become a great actor, a philosophical Cagliostro {Count Alessandro di Cagliostro (born Giuseppe Balsamo 1743-95): Italian alchemist and adventurer} and pied piper, in short, a seducer. This is in the end a question of taste, even if it were not a question of conscience. Add to this, by way of once more doubling the difficulties for a philosopher, that he demands of himself a judgment, a Yes or No, not about the sciences but about life and the values of life — that he is reluctant to come to believe that he has a right, or even a duty, to such a judgment, and must seek his way to this right and faith only from the most comprehensive — perhaps most disturbing and destructive — experiences, and frequently hesitates, doubts, and lapses into silence. Indeed, the crowd has for a long time misjudged and mistaken the philosopher, whether for a scientific man and ideal scholar or for a religiously elevated, desensualized, “desecularized” enthusiast and sot of God. And if a man is praised today for living “wisely” or “as a philosopher,” it hardly means more than “prudently and apart.” Wisdom — seems to the rabble a kind of escape, a means and a trick for getting well out of a wicked game. But the genuine philosopher — as it seems to us, my friends? — lives “unphilosophically” and “unwisely,” above all imprudently, and feels the burden and the duty of a hundred attempts and temptations of life — he risks himself constantly, he plays the rough game…

Consummated knowledge

A synthesis (syn- “together” + -tithenai “put”) is put-together piece by piece, expertly connected at each joint with logic.

The synthesis is placed before the mind, and the mind conceives it (con- “together” + -capere “take”). It is taken-together — conceived as a whole.

But the conceived whole still contains within itself the synthesis, which may be safely assumed and ignored. The whole can, in principle, be reopened, analyzed and seen to form a valid synthesis, or it can remain a closed unit — a given — represented by a concept.

In being simultaneously together-put and together-taken — both a conceived con- and synthesized sum- — the knowledge is consummated.

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When a synthesis is unblessed by conception, the synthesis must remain either a certified truth claim, or a thinking process that must be consciously repeated to reaffirm the truth. The knowledge feels unnatural, mechanical and artificial in application.

Consummated knowledge feels natural and can be called second-natural.

Consummated knowledge is integrated into one’s own subjectivity, and becomes an extension of one’s own self. Consummated knowledge is faithful.

Synthesis stays external. It is a pile of objective ideas one thinks about and considers “true”. Synthetic knowledge might become engrained in habit and experienced as familiar, but it can never be seen in nature as a given,

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Some rationalists are unable or unwilling to conceive a distinction between habitually-engrained and second-natural. They want to believe human nature is artificial and arbitrary. This is the mentality that assured us that our ears would learn to love serial music, that we would feel happy dwelling in cold, austere modern spaces. This is the mentality that wishes to reengineer language in order to remake our norms.

The only difference between artificiality and second-nature is time — and compulsion.

These rationalists fancy themselves more open and imaginative than those confined to the narrow convention of today’s taste. They are prophets who refuse to limit themselves to contemporary prejudices.

But what if today’s worst and most narrow prejudice is the malleability of human nature? That taste is a prejudice — but not rationalism, not unfettered imagination?

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Consummation is the ideal of design. A great design is intuited on the whole, but the intuition provides insight into the design’s synthesized parts. Designers work hard keeping the system consummated so part and whole inter-illumine.

This consummation is also the ideal of philosophy. An enworldment is a conceptual-synthetic understanding of everything that permits us to feel the synthetic black-boxed truth sealed tidily inside wholes, which we could, but needn’t, open, analyze, inspect and reassemble, unless we are bothered by it, or truly curioys. Without being burdened and overwhelmed we can intuit an intelligibility of the world around us.

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Or we can just break open every concept and leave the parts disassembled snd scattered. Every concept can be deconstructed, as we invariably find if we try.

The deconstructions do not necessarily destroy our faith in the concepts, but if the concepts are destructible, a deconstruction is the most effective means.

For this reason, we often deconstruct unwanted given truths with an intent to destroy. Once we have done it, we sometimes feel we have earned the right to call the former given a mere construct.

Do we, ourselves, stop seeing the given as true? Nobody can prove one way or another, so it is safe to lie if we wish.

We can also make new syntheses and put them into concept-like boxes and claim that we find these boxes intuitive.

Do we ourselves see these concept-like constructions as given truths? Nobody can prove one way or another, so it is safe to lie if we wish.

And many of us have grown so burdened with facts accepted from other experts that we no longer have any expectation of intuiting a given world. Nothing feels natural, and we congratulate ourselves on that fact. We tell ourselves and each other that we are better off relying on “System 2” artificial thinking-about as we bob about adrift in a meaningless universe. Nobody can prove one way or another, so it is safe to lie if we wish.

Nobody can prove one way or another, so we think it is safe to lie if we wish — except this unprovable dishonesty is felt with immediacy. The dishonesty pervades a personality and gives it a coloration and odor. Though this profound dishonesty cannot be formally discredited, it is not believed, even by oneself. But nobody can prove one way or another, so it is safe to lie if we wish.

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Lack of intellectual conscience is a liability to philosophical and design craft.

“Comanimity”

Last week I had a fascinating conversation with work friends about the different modes of agreement that happen in team collaboration, and it made me aware that we are lacking language for some very important social phenomena.

Most of the time when we think about agreement, we think in terms of unanimity. (unus “one” + animus “mind”). For very simple and general matters, this understanding of agreement works well.

But for extremely complex technical problems (where no single person’s expertise can cover all the technical workings of the solution of a problem), or extremely deep experiential problems (where no single person’s interpretative range can cover the full range of perspectives through which the solution to a problem will be experienced), unanimity is impossible.

We have developed means to deal with technical complexity. We simply separate ends and means, and seek agreement primarily on ends. The means are handled by departments that specialize in solving specific categories of technical problem. Much of modernity was learning to cope with technical complexity through sophisticated management techniques.

We have not, however, developed adequate means for dealing with deep experiential problems, where ends themselves differ, often irreconcilably, at least if unanimity remains the goal.

Here the pursuit of unanimity is not only futile, but socially disastrous.

Why is pursuit of unanimity is socially disastrous.? Because if we are called upon to produce good solutions for a plurality so diverse that no single person’s empathy can accommodate the range, any unanimity, however smart, sophisticated or benevolent must necessarily exclude a great number of perspectives, and risk alienating them.

What is needed in such cases is a different kind of agreement, which I will call comanimity.

In this kind of agreement, each party participates as an organ of a larger mind, too large to fully comprehend. (com– “together” + animus “mind”) In comanimity, we accept that the understanding in which we participate transcends our personal comprehension, but we don’t simply relegate the unknowns to irrelevance. Rather we cultivate responsiveness to the whole, so we can participate responsibly. We become a subject who participates in sustaining a real but only partially-known super-subject.

Comanimity is lived pluralism.

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An example of comanimity is close marriages between spouses who are deeply different from one another. Each learns to love not only what is known and established in the other, but also learns to love responding to what is novel and surprising in the other — and even more importantly, learning the value of accommodating shocking or disturbing differences. This is where marriages deepen. Some marriages choose peace and polite distance, and stay in the realm of unanimity, but any marriage that pursues intimacy will learn the art of comanimity or end in divorce. My prejudices that comanimity is marriage’s second, and far more crucial consummation.

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I think comanimity is only possible among willing participants and that this cannot be forced.

Most people are unwilling.

And the most unwilling of all are those who belong to a unanimous group that takes its unanimity as the Truth — at least until they stop getting their way… at which time another unanimous group takes over and imposes its Truth, and becomes even more unwilling to see validity beyond its limits.

I hope we can find the desire to transcend fragmented unanimities before it leads us into a civil war. But the grim lesson I’ve leaned, reading about the English and American civil wars, leads me to believe everyone will bet on winning until everyone loses.

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.

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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.

Who goes first?

My Jewish friend sent me this text:

I’m fascinated with reconciliation. I still think the left cannot reconcile with the right… it has to come from the right. Or it won’t go anywhere, and the left’s best move is scorched earth.

My reply:

As you know, I often say “Jews go first,” When I say this, I say it with the profoundest respect: In a conflict of irreconcilable visions, it is the deeper and more mature soul who will summon the will and wisdom to initiate reconciliation. This is what made me want to be Jewish.

When thinking and envisioning ways our nation might come out of our crisis of contempt, until recently I assumed that it would be up to the Left to make the first move. This belief was founded on a sincere and chauvinistic prejudice that the Left was most qualified and capable of initiation, and that the Right was, in all innocence, unqualified and incapable.

But after repeated attempts to appeal to those I believed to be better Leftists, I have come to the dreadful realization that the Left is genuinely incapable of reflecting on and accepting its own role in this conflict.

The Left is so trapped inside its own sense of intellectual and moral superiority — and so terrified of moral responsibility — that it can no longer find the humility, faith and philosophical freedom to pursue the reestablishment of mutual respect. It thinks the worst wrong-doer is the one who must go first, accept blame, give an apology, and ask for forgiveness — and this attitude is a symptom of moral impoverishment that shows going first is out of the question.

So, sadly, yes — I agree with you: the Right must go first.

Or, at least, someone other than the Left.


Here is something I know:

Nobody will ever consent to be led by any person or group who seems to despise them, who sees them as contemptible. People seek leaders who demonstrate respect and signal good-will.

Putting ourselves under the rule of others who despise us feels existentially dangerous. And it is dangerous. At best a contemptuous ruler will administer with benevolent disrespect, imposing their own personal standards of benevolence on those who do not accept it; at worst they will tyrannize and control for their own self-gratification. But regardless of their benevolence or malevolence, they cannot be counted on to listen respectfully and respond responsibly. They will rule according to their own constricted omniscience, which to them, and them alone, seems self-evidently true and just.

Here is something else I know:

Any person or group who tolerates contempt in themselves — who is unwilling to do what it takes to overcome it — lacks the qualifications for leadership — or at least leadership in a liberal democracy. And anyone who prefers contempt — or, God forbid, cultivates contempt — must not only be barred from leadership, but must be gently constrained and prevented from harming others, however much they see themselves as heroes of history.

Any person fit to lead will do whatever it takes to overcome contempt. They will surrender their own treasured sense of intellectual and moral superiority to accomplish it. They will accept their own responsibility for whatever damage has been done — which does not mean assuming blame, but rather setting blame aside and responding where response is possible. They will willingly suffer dark nights of the soul traversing the shadowy underworld of perplexity, refusing to look back, in search of the exit at the other side, which is an entrance: an entrance into a new accommodating faith and enworldment great enough for all to share.

And this is what I know most of all:

In the pursuit of conciliation and community, metanoia is the supreme means. It promises resolutions currently inconceivable and incomprehensible, because reality is inexhaustibly surprising. We can come to conceive the inconceivable, comprehend the incomprehensible and resolve insoluble problems — if we are willing to open our hands, let our white-knuckled conceits of all-knowingness and self-righteousness slip through the fingers of our minds — so that something else, something better, something grander, can be given.

Metanoia is no end in itself. Anyone who knows its ways assumes an obligation to use it properly — and not to hedonistically abuse metanoia like a drug.

Knowing metanoia, but getting off on it, while refusing its conciliatory powers, is not only wrongheaded but wronghearted.

This wronghearted and wrongheaded wrongdoing can be overcome — but this overcoming must be desired, and that desire is hard to accept.

Gestalt : gesture

In Wisdom & Metaphor, Jan Zwicky’s playing of gesture against gestalt is characteristically precise, clear and beautiful. All the essential left-side passages of this book are spare (but never stark) — pristinely unornamented — not out of aversion to ornament, but because ornament is unnecessary. The beauty of this book is in this freedom for ornamental need.

If I am understanding Zwicky correctly, gestures relate to gestalts in the way I wanted to say that conceptions (as mindmoves) relate to concepts. Gestures and conceptions both spontaneously conceive meanings in wholes taken-together.

But it is so much prettier to say “gesture” instead of mindmove. And linking that to the gestalt taking-together (conceiving) is just perfect. And by perfect I don’t mean merely flawless. I mean it is deeply complete. This is where the advantage of being both poet and philosopher shows.

So, a gesture is a disciplined intuitive murmuration — intuitions flying in formation in response to realities — realities that can be understood as alike in their yielding meaning in the same gesture.

*

I’m concerned, but not devastated in the least, that I may longer have any need to write the book I intended to write. The greed driving my writing — my intense need to give these sacred ideas a perfect form befitting their value — is, at least for now, satiated. I cannot believe how much I love this book.

I still have some important new ideas to communicate, but those ideas are more profane and can be said in more relaxed language. And maybe the work I was doing can still be useful, by forming these beautiful poetic truths into beautiful intellectual equipment for doing practical work in this meaning-parched, contempt-convulsed, dirty, fragile, precious world.

Since you asked…

A friend of mine has a habit of sending me emails consisting of simple, beautiful questions.

Years ago he introduced me to Christopher Alexander. When Alexander died I sent him an email, and that started a discussion of Alexander’s later work. This was the context (at least for me) of his latest question-poem:

What is value? Can it be objective?

Does it exist in everything, regardless of whether it is understood or appreciated?

Of course, I had to ruin the glorious simplicity by writing an encyclopedia of a response. The content is mostly the same stuff I am always going on and on about, but these questions inspired a different angle of expression.

But there is one new-ish move here, which might even be an insight: extending the complexity of Bergsonian time to both space (conceived in designerly contextual terms) and — best of all — to self. Just as Bergson conceived now, not as an instant-point, but as a flowing interaction of memories and anticipations, we can see the I, not as an ego-point, but as a subject-complex with flexibly mobile contours subsisting within any number of We’s. This polycentric-self idea may present an alternative to the individualist-collectivist continuum that for many seems the only conceivable possibility.

It all seemed worth posting, so here it is, in mildly edited form.


What is value? Can it be objective?

Christopher Alexander seems committed to objective value, if by objective you mean “inherent to objects” and not relative to a subject. My inclination is to see value as relational — a relation between valuer and valued. I know this is exactly the relativist conventional wisdom what Alexander is attempting to overcome — and I respect that — but I think the real goal here is aesthetic truthfulness (a species of intellectual conscience).

The trusty old Enlightenment method of logical coercion, though, is no match for the might of aesthetic bad faith. Someone who needs to lie about subjective values will become a true believer.

I think this is a religious matter, honestly. Subjective honesty is a virtue we have to cultivate in ourselves, and then we can recognize others who seem to respond to what we experience in similar ways. If discrepancies in response happen, it is more or less impossible to know if someone is subjectively dishonest, or having a strong, sincere idiosyncratic response — or has developed sensibilities beyond our own and are seeing beauty (or other subjective conceptions/perceptions) we haven’t learned to see, yet.

But if we want subjective truth, we’ll stay responsive to our own value-sense, while also looking for ways to transcend our current subjective limits (that is, we will entertain new ways of conceiving and perceiving and see what “takes”).

I think the best reason for this subjective self-transcendence is seeking more accommodating truth, supportive of community of subjective experience with others. Bigger, deeper, richer common sense.

Our We can be more than a mere aggregation of me’s and it’s (in orbit around one’s own I, even — no, especially — when we attempt to efface, factor out, or counter-balance that central I) but this requires a different good faith than the Enlightenment’s objective good faith.

The I won’t disappear. It can’t disappear because it doesn’t appear — any more than our own eyes appear in our vision. The I makes everything else appear. I manifests as a particular everything — what I’m calling enworldment.

We cannot decenter our own I no matter how we try, and when we attempt it, we only conceal its workings for ourselves and delude ourselves into universalizing our own current enworldment as the world per se. Decentering creates more monstrously self-idolizing self-centerings: misapotheosis.

What is needed now is polycentering. Let’s stop scolding our children and saying “you are not the center of the universe.” (When heard phenomenologically, this is manifest bullshit, because of fucking course every child is situated precisely at the center of the universe, and nowhere else, as every child knows!) What we should say is: “you are not the only center of the universe.”

The best alternative to egoist self-centeredness is not the self-decenteredness of altruism, but the self-polycenteredness of participation in community.

*

For some reason Bergson is in the air right now. Many of us are realizing or re-realizing that every instant of time is not an infinitesimal blip on a timeline, but a complex of recollections, concurrences and anticipations. And if we look around us into our environment, as designers, objects are not aggregates of infinitesimal particles, but are environed complexes of contexts, parts, wholes, ensembles. We need to grasp the fact that the I is exactly analogous, in this way, to space and time. An I subsists within a We of present people, memories of people, who I am to others, who they are to me, what I fear from them and for them, what I desire from them, and they from me — an I is a complex of freedom and response-ability. An I is not an ego-point, it is a subject-complex.

That asterisk-shaped continuum with I-Here-Now at the center does not meet at a point but, rather at a bright nebular heart streaming out into things, times, relationships — streaming out, and sometimes withdrawing back into itself to conserve itself, or to gather energy for more streaming-out, or to die as an insular speck.

Does it exist in everything, regardless of whether it is understood or appreciated?

Again, I think value can exist in everything and ideally does exist in everything, but I’m a believer in value inhering not in the subjectivity of the valuer’s valuations or in the objectivity of the valued’s value, but rather in the relationship — in the consummation of valuing. It isn’t subjective or objective — it is “interjective”.

The value is there for us, as a self-evident universal given, if we enworld ourselves in a way that invites valuing relationships. Christians call this “entering the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Wisdom of obscurity

When fundamental conceptions are at stake in a disagreement, things get serious.

Then the discourse goes from normal discourse on established common ground to abnormal discourse where the ground itself is contested — and not only for that particular subject, but for one’s very subjectivity and for one’s enworldment.

Here our philosophical self-preservation instincts kick in. Those spiritual self-preservation instincts manifest as inner angst and outer moral indignation.

This kind of discourse the furthest thing from playful — unless we include under the heading of “play” contemptuous mockery, in which case,  the talk stops being discourse.

*

At certain depths of understanding, it is wise to stop talking and to turn to symbol, poetry, ritual — to the blessed ambiguity of non-explicit speech.

This is the practical wisdom of tradition.

*

Once traditions break down — once the traditional distancing formalities and taboos wear thin — once faiths are overexposed — everything gradually becomes symptomatic of bad faith.

‘Wisdom

I love words, and I love concepts. My house is stuffed with books, many of them purchased for the sake of a single perfect sentence.

But this love of articulate concept is set against what has not yet been conceived or articulated, and that, in turn, is set against what is forever inconceivable and ineffable.

Without this ineffable context, words and concepts could not matter to me.

*

Behindness and beyondness bounds the mind on two sides.

The behindness is beneath the root of all our most primitive meanings — meanings that can only be shown (pointed-at indexical meanings, demonstrated ostensive meanings, and shared valuing, a kind of inter-subjective indexical meaning around which culture forms).

The beyondness is above the crown of our most ambitious ideas, notions which may be touched, sensed and recognized as real, while exceeding the mind’s comprehending grasp. What is touched but not grasped is the apprehensive inner surface of mystery.

The inconceivable, ineffable mystery simultaneously compels us with love and repels us with dread. It is the pulling-pushing musculature that moves the jointed bones of our structured thought.

*

The ability to conceive and articulate within the bounds existing articulate conceptions is intelligence.

The awareness of beneathness under the root and beyondness above the crown of our articulate conceptions is wisdom.

*

Wisdom is practical awareness of otherwise.

For us, things could be otherwise. Things might, even now, be otherwise for others. If I will allow it, and will invite it, things might soon be otherwise for me.

Metanoia bestows a gift of new givens.

*

I enjoy imagining a missing apostrophe at the start of the word wisdom — that wisdom is a contraction of otherwisdom: ‘wisdom.

*

‘Into your eyes I looked recently, O life! And into the unfathomable I then seemed to be sinking. But you pulled me out with a golden fishing rod; and you laughed mockingly when I called you unfathomable.

“Thus runs the speech of all fish,” you said; “what they do not fathom is unfathomable. But I am merely changeable and wild and a woman in every way, and not virtuous — even if you men call me profound, faithful, eternal, and mysterious. But you men always present us with your own virtues, O you virtuous men!”

Thus she laughed, the incredible one; but I never believe her and her laughter when she speaks ill of herself.

And when I talked in confidence with my wild wisdom she said to me in anger, “You will, you want, you love — that is the only reason why you praise life.” Then I almost answered wickedly and told the angry woman the truth; and there is no more wicked answer than telling one’s wisdom the truth.

For thus matters stand among the three of us: Deeply I love only life — and verily, most of all when I hate life. But that I am well disposed toward wisdom, and often too well, that is because she reminds me so much of life. She has her eyes, her laugh, and even her little golden fishing rod: is it my fault that the two look so similar?

And when life once asked me, “Who is this wisdom?” I answered fervently, “Oh yes, wisdom! One thirsts after her and is never satisfied; one looks through veils, one grabs through nets. Is she beautiful? How should I know? But even the oldest carps are baited with her. She is changeable and stubborn; often I have seen her bite her lip and comb her hair against the grain. Perhaps she is evil and false and a female in every way; but just when she speaks ill of herself she is most seductive.”

When I said this to life she laughed sarcastically and closed her eyes. “Of whom are you speaking?” she asked; “no doubt, of me. And even if you are right — should that be said to my face? But now speak of your wisdom too.”

Ah, and then you opened your eyes again, O beloved life. And again I seemed to myself to be sinking into the unfathomable.’

— Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “First Dancing Song”

General uniqueness

What is unique about you is how you conceive sameness in uniqueness: What unique being is like another unique being in some respect?; what unique being is a part of another unique whole?

With respect to the fact that we see uniqueness as sameness, we are all alike.

In how we see uniqueness as sameness, we differ.

*

Each jewel in Indra’s net is unique, and its uniqueness consists in how, from its own node, the other jewels appear alike and different from one another. There is no other view of the net except from from one of its jewels. Outside the jewels, the net is annihilated in a meaningless simultaneity of every possible meaning.

Argyle

Today, I am recollecting and reflecting on the insights that originally inspired me to draw a diagram that I’ve called “the argyle”.

It was originally meant to show how conceptual wholes and synthesized parts can intersect to produce meaningful systems. In a meaningful system the conception of the system makes the synthesized parts feel necessary and given, because their relationships are pre-determined by the logic of the concept –“Of course it works this way! — but, also, the synthesis is rationally constructed, so even if the concept were missed, the system would make sense — “This is perfectly clear and logical!”.

A meaningful system is comprehended with intuition and reason, or with both together in concert. (I’ve also considered the idea of treating comprehension as being simultaneous inter-illuminating conception and synthesis — instead of as an umbrella term for either conception or synthesis.)


The reason I needed to create this framework was that I’ve found that certain very types of designers (and people doing the work of designers) tend to prioritize concept over synthesis or synthesis over concept to such a degree that they stop reinforcing one another. One one extreme we have the wild genius who conceives a vision of the whole and regards all logic as stultifying formalism that undermines the inspired spontaneity of creation. It does not have to make clear sense if hearts are stirred and wallets open wide. On the other extreme we have the logical organizer of elements who views with suspicion and impatience any delaying attempt to seek an overarching concept to guide the design. After all, logic can get down to work immediately and start making demonstrable progress toward the final goal. If the final output is uninspired and dry — so what? Can the system be figured out with minimal effort? Good enough.

Years later, out of exasperation and a weakness for potty-mouthed ridicule, I developed a second model to describe the failure of merging concept and synthesis — though somehow, until today, I managed to miss the opportunity to explicitly link this failure to synthesis and concept. Instead I linked it to inspired meaning versus practical details.

I called this “the bullshit-chickenshit model”.

Bullshit – Meaningful, inspiring ideas that seem to promise something, but that something can never be fulfilled through any practical action.

Chickenshit – Practical activity that seems like it ought to serve some meaningful purpose, but in reality is pointless busyness.

Bullshit is meaning without practice. Chickenshit is practice without meaning.

But, really, bullshit can be understood as unsynthesizable concept. The meaning is a feeling of vast promise that cannot be applied to any particular.

Chickenshit can be understood as inconceivable synthesis. It is a giant mechanism of logically conjoined pieces that never resolves into a meaningful whole.

Most of what we encounter in the world is pure bullshit and pure chickenshit, and this produces that one-two KO nihilistic punch in the face that sometimes makes us want to burn this whole madhouse down.

*

Finally, I will accept the risk of being accused of bullshit by suggesting that the  Star of David can be viewed as a transcendent argyle, and the ultimate overcoming of bullshit and chickenshit . Even before I was Jewish I conceived it this way, and this insight contributed to my need to be Jewish.

Here, the overlap of concept and synthesis is maximized, and both the depth of concept and extent of the synthesis is felt to exceed the overlap. The meaning of the religious vision resonates in every practical detail of life, but also the doing of every day mundane life is sacralized in Tikkun Olam.

Sacred practicality is practical sacrality.

Practical sacrality is sacred practicality.

This is my own Jewish ideal, and I don’t think it is only mine.

*

Postscript

The “skeleton” of the star — formed by connecting the opposing points of each of the overlapping triangles — eventually became the asterisk “star” in Geometric Meditations.

Nietzsche vs liberal theology

Thinking about religion in an appreciatively or tolerant way from a standpoint that sees itself as having overcome the need for religious belief is the furthest thing from understanding religion.

This religion-appreciating standpoint — which sees intense awe or the excitement of discovery as a genuine substitute for religious feeling and the gestalt shifts resulting from extraordinary science or abnormal discourse as metanoia — believes it pays religion a compliment when it maps isolated bits to scripture to its discoveries.

It is the furthest thing because, at bottom, it is a benevolent nullification of religion as even requiring strong disagreement. Religion need not be attacked or suppressed, when it can be analyzed, disassembled and reintegrated into less fanatical, less absolutist, less violence-inclined worldviews.

Why shouldn’t these worldviews be seen as just as religious as any of the older religious faiths? Who gets to define what is and is not a religion?

I grew up with this antifaith.

My whole life I’ve tried to overcome this religion-tolerant religiosity.

I really may have failed to overcome it.

*

And if my thought-dreams
Could be seen
They’d probably put my head
In a guillotine.
But it’s alright, Ma,
It’s life,
And life
Only.

— Bob Dylan

*

Early in his career, Nietzsche published a series of essays collected under the title Untimely Meditations. In one of these essays he attacked the liberal theologian David Strauss as a founder of a Christianoid religion safe for — even useful to — “cultural philistines”.

It’s a painful read, because young Nietzsche hadn’t found his voice yet, and this voice is one of unsubtle, unconstrained romantic fury. But the overtness of the anger is also revealing, and it renders visible much of what older Nietzsche learned to hint at from a higher and cooler altitude, resulting in vastly better style.

In this book, he lashes out at a type who resists, as if on principle — but what Nietzsche claims is the instinct of a temperament — what I would call a fully successful enworldment — that is a way of life animated (in the most literal sense of the word) by a unifying conception.

I use the word conception in a sense defined against another term, synthesis. Conception is a mode of comprehension that spontaneously and transparently takes-together experience as givens that, for all the world, seem given by reality itself, even though it is an artifact of relationship between self and reality. Synthesis is a mode of comprehension that consciously puts-together ideas into truth assertions.

My take on Nietzsche’s rage toward Strauss (who is only a stand-in for the cultural philistine type), is that Nietzsche expects far more from culture than cultural philistines will allow. The cultural philistine, according to my interpretation of Nietzsche, is a person occupied with culture (religion, art, philosophy) but from a perspective that forbids authentic participation in culture. Instead culture is taken as collections of artifacts which are somehow valuable and edifying apart from the naivety of the conditions that engendered them. The philistine enworldment that takes them up trusts only syntheses — an external putting-together of these meaningful artifacts, so they are objective possessions of the intellect, not dismemberments of potentially possessing enworldments.

To put it in Kahnemanese, a philistine trusts exclusively in System 2, and treats all System 1 as something to debunk and neutralize. But cultures (if you believe Nietzsche, and my own odd Nietzscheanism) are System 1 enworldments: passionate, committal, participatory, intuitively-immediate enworldments.

At a young age, Nietzsche, I believe, in his philological work took some of these cultural dismemberments and managed to re-membered them in a fuller and more possessing context. In other words, he re-enworlded himself with some ancient faith. This is what forced him out of the university. Because the modern university is itself an enworldment — a sort of oversubject that places academic subjects in mutual relation with one another — and in Nietzsche’s day, that oversubject was Germany’s philistine anticulture, and it needed the services of cultural philistines, not professors whose allegiance in their subject exceeded their allegiance to the universality of the university.

*

Today, in the United States of America we are tolerant of religions, as long as the members of the religion keep their priorities straight. Their allegiance to their nation must be higher than their allegiance to their religious faith. If they take their religious faith to be higher, and they allow what (they think) God commands to have priority over what the government commands, they are dangerous fanatics.

And I agree!

But I agree as a religious person who thinks liberalism is not a condition to be imposed by religion — but as a condition religion itself imposes… or at least ought to.

*

Many believers would dispute that I am religious.

Cultural philistines would probably find my religion unacceptable, because I sincerely, helplessly, actually believe the things I have come to believe. I can no longer place them against a 3rd-person impersonality, nor can I temper my faith with irony, however much I try.

Some Jews have told me I am a Jew. I’ll go with that.

Random thoughts about theology, symbol and design

Imagine a religion where the congregation convenes and worships by expounding theology in explicit language — instead of worshiping in the beautiful but ambiguous symbolic language of ritual and prayer — with the intention of developing the clarity, depth and inspirational intensity of the theology to the furthest possible extent.

Imagine that, through this practice, the congregation does succeed in its collective goal. Imagine also, that this theological worship enables every member of the congregation to make personal progress, each at their own maximum pace, in their own theological understanding.

What happens?

I will tell you exactly what happens: With each personal epiphany, the congregation shatters and reshatters in protest and counter-protest.

*

A clear theology is univocal. It conveys one specific belief.

But, ultimately, every one of us, being unique, has a unique relationship to the infinite. There are as many theologies as there are persons. The better the theology, the less it accommodates more than one theologian — and the less comprehensible it is to all others — and the more intensely it induces apprehension in the uncomprehending.

A religious symbology is polyvocal. The more radically polyvocal it is, the more universal its community. A symbology can be an expression of any number of beliefs of varying depth and clarity.

Even beliefs that clash and conflict when stated explicitly, when expressed in symbol, affirm a harmonious commonality of faith beneath the beliefs.

*

Each religious symbol is a miracle of polysemy, a part of an even more miraculous polysemous symbol-system, the symbology of the religion. A change in any one symbol can crystallize a change throughout the system.

But these symbols are not external tokens that can be known through external manipulation.

One cannot understand a symbol as an object, grasped in the hand of the comprehending mind. Assembling and disassembling symbols like Lego blocks and combining them with pieces from other sets might give you some kind of knowledge about the pieces, and you might enjoy the experience of playing with them, but this comes at the cost of understanding their meaning of the symbol within the symbology that engendered it.

A symbology is not an object. A symbology is a subject.

To know a subject, we immerse in that subject, participating in its praxis until we have an epiphany — an epiphany that renders the subject clear — clear, invisible, imperceptible, transparent (trans- “through” + -parere “show oneself”) — so transparent that we experience the world itself through the subject, as made apparent by the subject, as given by the subject.

A subject is an enworldment.

*

If we conceive religions in terms of belief content, this produces a different understanding than if we see religions more like languages that put communities in relation with each other, and with ultimate reality.

*

Is a dictionary an inventory of every entity English-speakers believe exist? Isn’t that a notion we kicked to the curb when we rejected correspondence theories of truth? I’m curious: When we naively believed in correspondence theories of truth, and adhered to them, does that mean that this restricted our actual thinking and speech? Or did it mean we actually thought and spoke one way, but spoke about and thought about our speech and thought another?

Isn’t it possible that religious people participate in religion one way, but think about and speak about religion another? Likely, even?

*

In usability testing, we watch people use an artifact. We don’t thrust the artifact before them, invite them to look at it and ask them for their opinion of it. We give them a task, and they try to use the artifact to accomplish it.

When we ask them about what they did, or why they did it, it doesn’t add up. They say it was easy, when the struggled. Or they make up reasons to explain things they were clearly doing instinctively, unconsciously. They are clearly confabulating.

Looking at a thing and looking through a thing is radically different.

But we keep on thinking: “No, I get the gist of it.”

No, you do not get the gist of it.

*

The craft of research-informed design teaches us this over and over and over and over again not to trust our ability to see other perspectives from our own perspective.

*

The strangest thing about being human is that we are free. We can spiral our finitude out into infinitude, or we can withdraw our finitude and close it into an impenetrable circle. Anything we prefer to regard as nonsense we can leave nonsensical. Nobody can compel us to pursue its sense, unless we want to. We are free to understand or refrain from understanding. We can, if we wish, even obliterate understanding through willful misunderstanding. Nobody can stop us, or even know for certain what we are doing.

*

To say “the author is dead” is not a statement of fact, but a speech act that kills authors. And every day that we celebrate the author’s wake is a day that we, alone, are free to author our own life as we wish. Postmodernism was a disobligating liberation movement, and it succeeded. Nobody is the boss of me.

*

To say “God is dead” is also a speech act that kills God.

But, to that I say: Happy Easter.

*

There is wisdom in keeping our beliefs private and expressing what matters most symbolically.

Beatrice Warde: “The Crystal Goblet, or Printing Should Be Invisible”

This seminal essay was written by Beatrice Warde in 1955. I need a reliable way to link to this essay, and so I am posting it here.


The Crystal Goblet, or Printing Should Be Invisible

Imagine that you have before you a flagon of wine. You may choose your own favourite vintage for this imaginary demonstration, so that it be a deep shimmering crimson in colour. You have two goblets before you. One is of solid gold, wrought in the most exquisite patterns. The other is of crystal-clear glass, thin as a bubble, and as transparent. Pour and drink; and according to your choice of goblet, I shall know whether or not you are a connoisseur of wine. For if you have no feelings about wine one way or the other, you will want the sensation of drinking the stuff out of a vessel that may have cost thousands of pounds; but if you are a member of that vanishing tribe, the amateurs of fine vintages, you will choose the crystal, because everything about it is calculated to reveal rather than hide the beautiful thing which it was meant to contain.

Bear with me in this long-winded and fragrant metaphor; for you will find that almost all the virtues of the perfect wine-glass have a parallel in typography. There is the long, thin stem that obviates fingerprints on the bowl. Why? Because no cloud must come between your eyes and the fiery heart of the liquid. Are not the margins on book pages similarly meant to obviate the necessity of fingering the type-page? Again: the glass is colourless or at the most only faintly tinged in the bowl, because the connoisseur judges wine partly by its colour and is impatient of anything that alters it. There are a thousand mannerisms in typography that are as impudent and arbitrary as putting port in tumblers of red or green glass! When a goblet has a base that looks too small for security, it does not matter how cleverly it is weighted; you feel nervous lest it should tip over. There are ways of setting lines of type which may work well enough, and yet keep the reader subconsciously worried by the fear of ‘doubling’ lines, reading three words as one, and so forth.

Now the man who first chose glass instead of clay or metal to hold his wine was a ‘modernist’ in the sense in which I am going to use that term. That is, the first thing he asked of his particular object was not ‘How should it look?’ but ‘What must it do?’ and to that extent all good typography is modernist.

Wine is so strange and potent a thing that it has been used in the central ritual of religion in one place and time, and attacked by a virago with a hatchet in another. There is only one thing in the world that is capable of stirring and altering men’s minds to the same extent, and that is the coherent expression of thought. That is man’s chief miracle, unique to man. There is no ‘explanation’ whatever of the fact that I can make arbitrary sounds which will lead a total stranger to think my own thought. It is sheer magic that I should be able to hold a one-sided conversation by means of black marks on paper with an unknown person half-way across the world. Talking, broadcasting, writing, and printing are all quite literally forms of thought transference, and it is the ability and eagerness to transfer and receive the contents of the mind that is almost alone responsible for human civilization.

If you agree with this, you will agree with my one main idea, i.e. that the most important thing about printing is that it conveys thought, ideas, images, from one mind to other minds. This statement is what you might call the front door of the science of typography. Within lie hundreds of rooms; but unless you start by assuming that printing is meant to convey specific and coherent ideas, it is very easy to find yourself in the wrong house altogether.

Before asking what this statement leads to, let us see what it does not necessarily lead to. If books are printed in order to be read, we must distinguish readability from what the optician would call legibility. A page set in 14-pt Bold Sans is, according to the laboratory tests, more ‘legible’ than one set in 11-pt Baskerville. A public speaker is more ‘audible’ in that sense when he bellows. But a good speaking voice is one which is inaudible as a voice. It is the transparent goblet again! I need not warn you that if you begin listening to the inflections and speaking rhythms of a voice from a platform, you are falling asleep. When you listen to a song in a language you do not understand, part of your mind actually does fall asleep, leaving your quite separate aesthetic sensibilities to enjoy themselves unimpeded by your reasoning faculties. The fine arts do that; but that is not the purpose of printing. Type well used is invisible as type, just as the perfect talking voice is the unnoticed vehicle for the transmission of words, ideas.

We may say, therefore, that printing may be delightful for many reasons, but that it is important, first and foremost, as a means of doing something. That is why it is mischievous to call any printed piece a work of art, especially fine art: because that would imply that its first purpose was to exist as an expression of beauty for its own sake and for the delectation of the senses. Calligraphy can almost be considered a fine art nowadays, because its primary economic and educational purpose has been taken away; but printing in English will not qualify as an art until the present English language no longer conveys ideas to future generations, and until printing itself hands its usefulness to some yet unimagined successor.

There is no end to the maze of practices in typography, and this idea of printing as a conveyor is, at least in the minds of all the great typographers with whom I have had the privilege of talking, the one clue that can guide you through the maze. Without this essential humility of mind, I have seen ardent designers go more hopelessly wrong, make more ludicrous mistakes out of an excessive enthusiasm, than I could have thought possible. And with this clue, this purposiveness in the back of your mind, it is possible to do the most unheard-of things, and find that they justify you triumphantly. It is not a waste of time to go to the simple fundamentals and reason from them. In the flurry of your individual problems, I think you will not mind spending half an hour on one broad and simple set of ideas involving abstract principles.

I once was talking to a man who designed a very pleasing advertising type which undoubtedly all of you have used. I said something about what artists think about a certain problem, and he replied with a beautiful gesture: ‘Ah, madam, we artists do not think — we feel!’ That same day I quoted that remark to another designer of my acquaintance, and he, being less poetically inclined, murmured: ‘I’m not feeling very well today, I think!’ He was right, he did think; he was the thinking sort; and that is why he is not so good a painter, and to my mind ten times better as a typographer and type designer than the man who instinctively avoided anything as coherent as a reason. I always suspect the typographic enthusiast who takes a printed page from a book and frames it to hang on the wall, for I believe that in order to gratify a sensory delight he has mutilated something infinitely more important. I remember that T.M. Cleland, the famous American typographer, once showed me a very beautiful layout for a Cadillac booklet involving decorations in colour. He did not have the actual text to work with in drawing up his specimen pages, so he had set the lines in Latin. This was not only for the reason that you will all think of; if you have seen the old typefoundries’ famous Quousque Tandem copy (i.e. that Latin has few descenders and thus gives a remarkably even line). No, he told me that originally he had set up the dullest ‘wording’ that he could find (I dare say it was from Hansard), and yet he discovered that the man to whom he submitted it would start reading and making comments on the text. I made some remark on the mentality of Boards of Directors, but Mr Cleland said, ‘No: you’re wrong; if the reader had not been practically forced to read — if he had not seen those words suddenly imbued with glamour and significance — then the layout would have been a failure. Setting it in Italian or Latin is only an easy way of saying “This is not the text as it will appear”.’

Let me start my specific conclusions with book typography, because that contains all the fundamentals, and then go on to a few points about advertising.

The book typographer has the job of erecting a window between the reader inside the room and that landscape which is the author’s words. He may put up a stained-glass window of marvellous beauty, but a failure as a window; that is, he may use some rich superb type like text gothic that is something to be looked at, not through. Or he may work in what I call transparent or invisible typography. I have a book at home, of which I have no visual recollection whatever as far as its typography goes; when I think of it, all I see is the Three Musketeers and their comrades swaggering up and down the streets of Paris. The third type of window is one in which the glass is broken into relatively small leaded panes; and this corresponds to what is called ‘fine printing’ today, in that you are at least conscious that there is a window there, and that someone has enjoyed building it. That is not objectionable, because of a very important fact which has to do with the psychology of the subconscious mind. That is that the mental eye focuses through type and not upon it. The type which, through any arbitrary warping of design or excess of ‘colour’, gets in the way of the mental picture to be conveyed, is a bad type. Our subconsciousness is always afraid of blunders (which illogical setting, tight spacing and too-wide unleaded lines can trick us into), of boredom, and of officiousness. The running headline that keeps shouting at us, the line that looks like one long word, the capitals jammed together without hair-spaces — these mean subconscious squinting and loss of mental focus.

And if what I have said is true of book printing, even of the most exquisite limited editions, it is fifty times more obvious in advertising, where the one and only justification for the purchase of space is that you are conveying a message — that you are implanting a desire, straight into the mind of the reader. It is tragically easy to throw away half the reader-interest of an advertisement by setting the simple and compelling argument in a face which is uncomfortably alien to the classic reasonableness of the book-face. Get attention as you will by your headline, and make any pretty type pictures you like if you are sure that the copy is useless as a means of selling goods; but if you are happy enough to have really good copy to work with, I beg you to remember that thousands of people pay hard-earned money for the privilege of reading quietly set book-pages, and that only your wildest ingenuity can stop people from reading a really interesting text.

Printing demands a humility of mind, for the lack of which many of the fine arts are even now floundering in self-conscious and maudlin experiments. There is nothing simple or dull in achieving the transparent page. Vulgar ostentation is twice as easy as discipline. When you realise that ugly typography never effaces itself; you will be able to capture beauty as the wise men capture happiness by aiming at something else. The ‘stunt typographer’ learns the fickleness of rich men who hate to read. Not for them are long breaths held over serif and kern, they will not appreciate your splitting of hair-spaces. Nobody (save the other craftsmen) will appreciate half your skill. But you may spend endless years of happy experiment in devising that crystalline goblet which is worthy to hold the vintage of the human mind.

— Beatrice Warde, London 1955

Synesis and intellectual conscience

The Greek word synesis – literally, “togethering” – means understanding.

In synesis many forms of bringing together are brought together: bringing together one’s own various intuitions, which bring together various perceptions and ideas into understandings, which are then brought together with the rest of one’s understandings in a general understanding of everything. And once something is understood by one person, it can then be taught to other persons, in a fourth bringing together: shared understanding.

So synesis brings together many diverse kinds of bringing together: intuitive, phenomenal, philosophical, social.

*

Many of us are spiritual individualists, whether we think of ourselves as religious worshipers or secular connoisseurs of awe. We work out our own respective salvations, hammer out our own views, in disregard of public chatter.

We undervalue synesis — or even defiantly devalue it on principle. “My relationship with the Universe/Cosmos/Divine is between me and the Universe/Cosmos/Divine, and is not the business of other people.”

This approach works only if we exclude other people from the infinite domain of Universe/Cosmos/Divine. And we can do it, if we choose to — but we do pay a price we might not notice, or at least not recognize as symptoms of our spiritual individualism.

However, when we conceive other people as fellow participants in the Universe/Cosmos/Divine — intrinsic to it and inseparable from it — we understand clearly that this principled spiritual exclusion of other people from our spirituality falsifies the very being of the Universe/Cosmos/Divine. With infinity, every exclusion is a disqualifying impurity.

And further, if we decide to be unsparingly honest with ourselves — if we allow the quiet voice of our intellectual conscience to be heard through the noise of our “narratives”, our explanations, our theorizing, our justifications, and all our other sundry various whistlings- in-the dark — if our standard becomes “do I really believe this?” instead of “can I defend this position?” or “can anyone really prove that I don’t really think or feel this way?” — in other words if we pursue truth, not proof — we must acknowledge the importance of other people and our need to share our world with them.

*

We do not want to be alone.

Dishonesty isolates.

The dishonesty that isolates us most of all is that undisprovable inner dishonesty we cower in if we have been damaged by betrayal and spiritual coercion.

Then we are tempted to say, with Milton’s protagonist:

The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then hee
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence…

We do not have to stay here.

We can reconceive things — re-conceive ourselves — and walk away from our self-isolating dishonesty. It is not exactly safe, but certainly not lethal, to care.

The universal design brief

It occurs to me this morning that Liz Sanders’s useful/usable/desirable framework is the heart of what could be thought of as a universal design brief.

  • Useful: The design satisfies functional needs.
  • Usable: The design minimizes functional obstacles.
  • Desirable: The design is valuable beyond its function.

The goal of design research is to particularize this brief. Useful how? Usable how? Desirable how?

For me, at least, the most striking thing about such a brief is how poorly language serves its purpose. Perhaps the widest and strangest gap between academic research and design research is the role language plays in the research, especially in its output. Where the end product of academic research is normally a written publication, design research aims at producing a concrete design that users actually experience as useful, usable and desirable. Whatever words produced on the way are only a means to this end, and often design researchers are wise to say as few words as possible, and instead simply influence (in-form?), as directly as possible, the shaping of the design.

Useful is the most linguistically accessible goal. Usefulness can be summarized in terms of explicit functional needs addressable by features. When people think about what is learned in design research, those few people with any inclination and ability to imagine anything distinct typically see a method for uncovering needs. Here words serve us well. We identify a list of “jobs to be done” by the design. Some of these jobs are functional, and others are emotional or social, but all can be stated in words.

This helps explain why “design thinking” focuses most on usefulness. For most people, especially the kind of professionals who get invited to design thinking workshops, thinking is done in words.

Beyond usefulness, however, words help less — or even start to mislead and impede. Beyond the talk of usefulness, where usability and desirability is developed, design craft takes over.

Usable is the goal of removing friction and barriers to use. This should not mean (but all too often does mean) friction and barriers to figuring out how to use something. Figuring out is friction.

The flooding of the design field with non-designers from other disciplines — people who love problem solving, but lack real love of designed artifacts — who don’t notice, appreciate or maybe don’t even expect intimacy with designed artifacts — has caused a serious degradation in our usability expectations. Most designers today stop short at verbal “figure-out-ability”, instead of seeking intuitive usability.

Intuitive usability seeks spontaneous conceiving of the What, How and Why of a system in pre-use encounter, and direct wordless, transparent interaction in use.

Certainly, helpful things can be said about how to make something more usable — general principles of usability do exist — but ultimately, if spontaneous conception and tacit transparency is sought, usability is something that develops experimentally and concretely through an iterative design process. Usability can be indicated and its effect can be described, but usability cannot be encapsulated in speech like usefulness can. Usability is designed into things.

Desirability is the hardest goal. Here we try to create something attractive or compelling in pre-use and intrinsically meaningful in use. We want users to respond favorably to the intrinsic qualities of the artifact when beheld from a distance (when it is present-at-hand) and to experience an unobtrusively noticeable, ambient positivity during use when the artifact is ready-to-hand. Here, the better the design, the more reliably words fail, except maybe poetic words. Desirability is not just associated emotions, and especially not emotional uses (that is only emotional usefulness). Desirability is the je ne sais quois goodness in a design — a quiddity or thusness that makes it, to some degree, lovable. We feel the desirability of things when we feel it, and those who really know the craft of design can produce it reliably, but nobody can say how. Design researchers can help inform this effort, but much of the help is showing, not telling.

*

I guess I’m doing my usual beating-up-on-words thing again.

Why, though?

I think it is this: In a world that exalts language over craft, abstraction over concreteness, theory over practice — a world where craft must talk its way to the top or languish at the bottom under the micromanagement of talkers — where Thinkers reign over Doers, because obviously this is how things are — life itself is dictated by what is sayable.

Life devolves into features — heaps of What – and the quieter qualities of intuitiveness (How) and desirability (Why) fall by the wayside. What can’t be explicated, argued, listed on a PowerPoint slide drops away into ineffable oblivion.

Overall, life gets more and more useful… while growing less usable, less intuitive and less desirable. Life feels artificial, overwhelming and not worth the effort.

This artificiality seems to us to be the cost of progress. We see no alternative but returning to nature — retrogressing to simpler times.

But design offers an alternative to the A/B choice of progress into artificiality or return to nature.

Design offers second-naturalness.

But to get to an overall second-natural state we need to 1) raise our expectations of what we make for one another, and 2) kick our language supremacy and relearn reverence for craft. The more we can do this, the better chance we will have to instaurate a world that we experience as useful, usable and desirable.

*

Polycentric design seeks usefulness, usability and desirability for a plurality of actors who interact with things and one another. It seeks systems of mutual benefit, which make the system itself manifestly beneficial.

Do we know how to think in a way that supports acting in a way — making in a way — that supports polycentric design?

Do we actually understand what it takes to accommodate pluralistic mutuality?

Don’t we all sort of assume that all people ought to share our ideals, and that if only they would, that we could finally make progress toward something better? Don’t we think their resistance to what we want is an illegitimate obstacle that ought not exist? And don’t they think that about us?

We don’t want to discuss what ought to go without saying. We are exasperated, offended! We need to move on, make progress.

In design — real design that doesn’t just think design, but does design — this ironing out of mutuality demands things of us that seem unreasonable. The politics of what constitutes progress is the hardest part of making progress! But we want to skip this part, and just make progress as we see it, accusing the other who wants to make a  progress toward another ideal (or away from something experienced as undesirable or wrong) as mere obstruction. So pluralism, like design,  must not just be thought, but done.

Design is the practice of pluralism. Doing design, doing pluralism, and being unable to escape its terrible demands has forced me out of my head, down into my arms, hands, legs and feet and deep into my own heart. I have been forced to move my body to unfamiliar places, so I can watch how people do things, so I can hear them talk about what they are doing, why they are doing and how they feel about it all, so I can soak up the je ne sais quois of how they decorate, equip and inhabit their environments — and this moves me. I have worked and struggled to come to agreements with my colleagues and clients on what we have learned and how it is significant, and this has rarely been easy. Frequently, we have had to wrestle with perplexity together, to develop tiny, local philosophies to make what we intuit intelligible, thinkable, discussable. This has forced me to learn apprehension tolerance, and the art of summoning goodwill in the midst of angst.

To do these things at commercial velocity, and to survive as the kind of person I want to be, I have had to rethink how I think, rework how I work, redesign how I design — re-enworld myself — over and over again, iteratively.

I am convinced that what prevents us from designing better is our way of thinking. Our manner of thinking, our expectations of thinking — undermines our doing, and our capacity for doing-with — deep forms of collaboration.

We need a philosophy of polycentric design. I’ve made a solid start in designing one. I believe if I can get others to adopt my prototype and collaborate on developing it further, this way of understanding, this designerly way of enworlding ourselves together, could help us align on the kind of progress we would like to make together so we can move past this current dangerous-feeling impasse.

Why religion?

“Philosophy is a ladder made entirely of top rungs.”

*

I’ve been asked, and I’ve wondered myself: Why do I insist on bringing religion into my work? Why don’t I make a clean break and just philosophize about the same realities, but in more credible terms?

I will attempt a brief answer: It is because I believe Guenon was on to something.

I don’t believe Guenon was entirely right, and I do not share his metaphysics, but I do think he was right about the structure of esoterism and exoterism.

Esoteric truth is not accessible to comprehension. It is a less a form of knowledge than symbolically-mediated orientation to transcendent being (for lack of a better word).

Traditional religion can be seen as containing multiple degrees of exoteric objective understandings, successively approaching an esoteric core. To put it in postphenomenological terms, traditional religions are densely multistable symbol systems, where conceiving one stable state (an understanding) sets the stage for conceiving the next.

Every rejection of religion that I’ve seen so far has been a rejection of some exoteric approximation — usually one of the outermost approximations — rejected without reference to the esoteric structure that gives it its meaning. In other words, secular rejection of religion is based on a category mistake.

What makes this rejection both damaging and incorrigible that it based on an unwarranted presumption of superior understanding. It summarily invalidates (or at least reductionistically deflates) a vast amount of valid human experience — precisely what are felt to be the most crucial experiences! — belonging not only to our dead ancestors, but also to many of our living neighbors.

Learning to respect religion and respond religiously has connected me with history and allows me to form goodwill connections with many more people.

So why am I messing with a good thing? Why not just become a traditionalist?

At the risk of joining in the presumption, I believe that the exoteric forms  of traditional religions (or at least the outermost ones) have become inaccessible to many intelligent people who would not be averse to religion if they understood it in more esoteric terms. I want to write to people who feel compelled to approach the esoteric core but find all available exoteric rungs unclimbable.