Thursday, 20 February 2014

An academic story

The university lecturer adjusted his seat and turned towards the student who remained surprisingly engaged, “Now I am going to try and explain in as clear a terms as possible what I believe is troubling the western world. One sentence in and already a number of finger posts have sprung up like magic seedlings at the reverberations of my mumbling. Troubling? Western? World? Do I mean what is troubling me? Not exactly because I can behave as I chose. So then what do I mean? This dis-equilibrium, which manifests as a perpetual state of having to correct our coordinates. You may have read enough of Guy de Bord to think, “Hold on that is exactly where we are at”. I mean “exactly”. His thesis was that the spectacle replaces the first hand experience. The trouble here is that some people are fast to call this post modernism according to Baudrillard. (Thus turning it into a symbol. This is what the quest for knowledge and truth does.) So the over emphasis upon the visual is one aspect of civilised modern life that troubles me. Now more finger posts are springing up. The visual is a very literal aspect of contemporary culture but it also serves as a metaphor or perhaps I mean a paradigm – as in this means this and that means that. Target based culture places value on the token you are aiming to achieve. Now I think I’m getting somewhere. These tokens (exams, results, targets, quotas) are symbols. They are not real things in much the same way that fixating on an app is not fixating on a real thing. So we could then say that symbolic and visual are interchangeable in this instance. To clarify I would say that there are lots of paintings that move me a great deal but the pleasure is not purely visual despite a large part of their content apparently engaging initially through the visual sense.
 Joseph Campbell explained this in terms of the symbol being outside of us. We have a relationship with the symbol. The trouble as he saw it started because the symbols all emanate from within us. This separation from an aspect of ourselves is confusing and must, in my view, lead to a continual state of adjustment because we presume these things really are outside of us (Is this like measuring the distance of an object in a mirror?). Campbell commented that in a purely symbolic rationality we had replaced the goddess with a God. This confuses us and yet this confused state of constant adjustment is absorbed into our default settings. I realise that we all know the rapid acceleration of digital technology has changed our sense of self but it has also meant that the shift to symbolic is now instant.
The other aspect that troubles me is a distrust of the spiritual. This distrust is a result of visual rationality - you believe or you don't believe. If it can’t be measured it doesn’t exist. In Zen and the ART of Motorcycle Maintenance Pirsig talks about the classical – romantic split. This makes a lot of sense but I am not sure it explains everything. For him Quality was the pre-intellectual awareness that fed both these “interfaces”. He also seemed to accept that this split was skewed due to one framework not recognising the pre-intellectual state. To the rational mind there is no such thing as “quality” (Tao, bliss, enlightenment) there is only lack of rationality. If we take Romantic to mean Keats’s idea of Negative Capability then this is a conduit to the non-symbolic realm of “pre-intellectual” awareness. At the beginning I mentioned how I am free to act as I chose and this brings me now to Roberto Unger’s idea that Negative capability provides us with a route through the constraints of classification. For Unger negative capability is the "denial of whatever in our contexts delivers us over to a fixed scheme of division and hierarchy and to an enforced choice between routine and rebellion."
So I guess this is what the Communist Gallery offers us - A means of bypassing the false choice of routine or rebellion." He held the students gaze and resisted the urge to say "make sense?" and took a sip of his luke warm coffee.

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