Response to 1:1- On Humanism, Descartes' Dictum, and the Sad State of Art (Daniel Hill)

    We humans do seem to be unique in that we are among the few lifeforms on this planet that make tools. Yet our tools have the power to decimate life on the entire planet, whether slowly through environmental devastation and climate change, or quickly with thermonuclear war. As such, we can almost be forgiven for being so self-centered. Crows and octopuses are remarkably intelligent, but they aren’t competing with us for fossil fuels or launching ballistic missiles or cyber-attacks on our governments. That would get our attention!

    I have always considered myself to be a humanist. It is an intuitive thought really- how could one not be a humanist? Afterall, we all are human. My intuitive definition has been one of believing that all humans are inherently equal. This viewpoint is necessarily from within the human sphere and revolves around compassion for the human condition and our fellow humans. Without this, we would fail as a species. In terms of survival, this is another possible reason why we are so self-absorbed as a species. However, we have developed an unsustainable arrogance stemming from the notion of humanity being apart from the natural world.


    I am inclined to see Descartes' dictum and the inferences commonly associated with it as the main culprit in Western thinking for this binary mind vs body and human vs nature perspective. It is quite combative as well- why must there be a versus at all? Both our separateness from nature and our combative streak is likely tied to our inherited tendency for tribalism. Since Descartes' dictum coincided with the great paradigm shift of the scientific enlightenment, which Steven Pinker has demonstrated so thoroughly is indeed working well for most humans, the inference of the separateness of mind and body became almost an unimpeachable truth by association.


    “Science advances by the way of funerals” to paraphrase Max Planck and so it is true for all human advances. Several centuries on, we now are slowly realizing we are a part of the natural world, not outside, not separate. But the current power structures in place have much momentum and must diminish for true change to occur. The art world was no match for combat (since there must be a versus) with the powerful capitalist system that came to rise since the industrial revolution. Instead of being a counterbalance, a critic, it quickly fell under its sway and became synonymous. Sadly, art has now become largely irrelevant and meaningless to the majority of human beings. That art became the trophy of capitalism meant that the market would establish the fashions of aesthetics, which really means few are actually looking at the art. Hence form lost meaning in a way that can be identified by any human being, not just those accepted into the club. The way back will take place as artists recognize they are holding the keys to the main commodity of the future: meaning.



Taney Roniger said...

Daniel, you mention the agonistic nature of the dualistic mindset ("why must there be a versus at all?"). This is something Gregory Bateson talked about quite a bit. There's a wonderful essay of his on the cybernetics of alcoholism, believe it or not, that makes it all so clear: a person who sees himself as separate from the world *needs* a steady stream of real or imagined "others," even when the divisive othering puts him at war with himself. (A much-recommended essay for what it says about the Western mind!) I'm tempted to ask why this idea of the separate self arose in the first place -- i.e., what were the conditions in 5th C. BCE Greece, which seems to be where it originated. But that might lead us astray. I guess the question is what we can do about it now, now that it's so deeply ingrained in the Western psyche.

As for your last point about "meaning": I must say that the word seems dangerous to me right now where art is concerned. The reason is that it seems to have become synonymous with concept, message, narrative, etc. -- in short, with all the *discursive* meaning-making and meaning-talking that has pushed form to the wayside. Can we think of another word for the kind of meaning I think you mean, which is to say the non-discursive, deeply bodily, inarticulable kind? (But perhaps you should spell out what you mean by meaning!)

Deborah Barlow said...

Daniel, you wrote, “The way back will take place as artists recognize they are holding the keys to the main commodity of the future: meaning.”

I would phrase that differently. From my view, the main commodity of the future is the ability to emphatically embrace not knowing.

The humanism we are discussing is closely tied to knowledge, sense-making, meaning. I am more interested in what shows up in the absence of those formalizations.

In speaking about her father, Gregory Bateson, Nora Bateson expressed a similar idea:

“My father used to say, ‘The new comes out of the random.’ Mutual learning happens in the entropy; we need the confusion to release the new. This dance exists everywhere in nature. It is the swarm of confusion that becomes the grace of the way things come together. The individual paradoxically is both erased and brought to another kind of existence in noticing her participation in a larger context. In the space between the instrument, the musician, the notes, the audience, and silence, the song arrives. It is not in the instrument, nor is it in the musician, nor in the silence. The notes on the page are a map, not a territory. New meanings, new levels of understanding, come pouring into combinations born of our eagerness for contact.”

To take the philosophical position that we are essentially adrift in an inexplicable and ineffable state is usually dismissed as facile, lazy and unproductive. There is little respect for mystery as a meaningful part of our lives. And for all the embracing of the other that is evident right now, there still isn’t really a place at the table for the mystic.

It is a hard vision to defend and describe in any logical manner. But for many of us (including many artist friends) that’s the place where we keep finding ourselves. “The swarm of confusion that becomes the grace of the way things come together.” That experience can be inclusive or exclusive, small as well as large. But that is an experience I know something about.

Taney Roniger said...

"The humanism we are discussing is closely tied to knowledge, sense-making, meaning. I am more interested in what shows up in the absence of those formalizations." - *Yes* to this, Deborah. But surely there is a kind of meaning that resides in, or rather arises from, mystery (in fact you said as much, albeit indirectly). It seems to me that this is the kind of meaning that fills us with its presence whenever we adopt an attitude of humility toward the world. The feeling of being immersed in mystery -- of knowing that we do not know -- and of knowing that this mystery is so much larger than we are cannot but lead to humility. And living in that sense of right proportion seems to me the most meaningful thing we can do.

Taney Roniger said...

PS to Deborah: Would you consider posting your comment to Daniel as a new post? I say this because I'm afraid the comments are going to be overlooked, being tucked up under the posts like they are in small type.

Charlene Spretnak said...

Response to Daniel re 1.1 (Charlene Spretnak)

Daniel’s defense of humanism is a lot more pleasant to read than Steven Pinker’s relentless cheerleading for mechanistic science. I think, though, that arrogance is not the only problem with the perception in the modern Western mind that we are physically apart from and other than the rest of the natural world. The problem is that modernity has misunderstood so much of what is really going on in the physical world. In its quest to understand the physical world science – and society – struggled through a 300-year lost weekend, limited by humanist, mechanistic blinders. As Carolyn Merchant’s classic study The Death of Nature makes clear, the “new mechanical philosophy,” as the mechanistic worldview was originally called in the Scientific Revolution, was not the only candidate in the air as the medieval worldview was receding into what would come next. Other orientations preserved some of the premodern sense of the potent interrelatedness among all physical matter. Instead, we got the notion of a clockwork universe and the biomechanical model of the body. The field of physics began to self-correct from the mechanistic worldview more then a hundred years ago. Yet even after postmechanistic developments in science such as complexity studies and chaos theory in the 1980s and beyond, human biology, or physiology, was slow to slough off the biomechanistic model – until the 21st century. During the past twenty years, thousands of discoveries of dynamic interrelatedness have been made regarding the human organism (and its embeddedness in the dynamics of nature) that utterly pull the rug out from under the long-standing mechanistic assumptions about how we are structured and how we function. It will be fascinating to see how art will engage with this sea change in our understanding. The supposedly entirely “Autonomous Individual” of Enlightenment thought is actually the human-in-relationship.