A navigator is essentially a guide who charts the path for others to follow. The skill is not so much to invent direction as to describe what is inchoate yet readable. Art is a very complex discourse, loaded with expectation and prediction. Inevitably it is political because it uses structures of expression that owe allegiance to systems of understanding. Every language carries prejudice of one kind or another by virtue of the form it takes. This factor alone makes it impossible to ever comprehend the “Other”. Even the word and concept of ‘Art’ constitute a Western categorization which is alien to other cultures.
However, all cultures are increasingly bound together and share many characteristics. This is really a subtle form of colonization with certain cultures and concepts gaining dominance. At one level, everyone is a navigator, tasked with discerning the hidden perils of interpretation for survival and advancement. Although slavery seems endemic, in a strange way subordinate cultures grow through the rich topsoil, ultimately displacing dominant forms which have usually grown fat and lazy. History is littered with examples of empires being toppled in this manner.
What is under siege is the Western way of seeing which has given rise to a political system that has entrenched a set of exclusive values. Change is inevitable since flux is the nature of our existence and no self-respecting molecule hangs around in one place too long.
In our time, conventional barriers are becoming obsolete. The speed and accessibility of information renders huge repositories of hard data held in impregnable fortresses irrelevant. Control of information has shifted form and giants like Google are re-colonizing it, deciding on new ways of ordering importance. Their search engine ranking procedure ensures that site popularity precedes substance. Cell phones can be linked to bank accounts and grocery shopping will be automatically debited as one leaves the store. It will be quite possible in the future to shake hands and exchange résumés in the contact of skin on skin, wearing information bracelets.
The question though is what qualitative formation this change will take. Will it be an extension of the demeaning processes we experience through consumerist ideology or will we find refreshing new formulas for interpreting desire?
The most interesting thing about art is our inability to pin it down. Thinking about it means thinking about existence. Defining or creating art is a form of death, with the cessation of flux and yet coagulation spurs on the next urge to formulate. Certain art impulses try to lodge themselves in never-ending process but remain curtailed by critical evaluation. It seems that drawing boundaries, a process of inclusion/exclusion, is how we interact with consciousness. In a wider sense, any challenge to the order of things must alter the borderlines of perception.
The Cartesian mind/body dualism bedevils us still. Pure forms of Conceptualism unwittingly subscribe to these Eighteenth Century ideas, which have homunculi lurking in the shadowy recesses. It presumes an inherent linearity of thought, as if this paring away at the lichens of chaos could ever reveal absolute truth.
Rationality has been held up as a distinguishing feature between humans and animals. Social biologists have more doubts. A treasured preserve such as the ability for abstract thought, is now observed in other species. We just had to become more sophisticated in testing and interpreting data.
There are a lot of misconceptions about how we think
The mind is generally held to be largely unconscious and it is presumed that we began with ancient, reptilian brains which evolved processes until “Hey Presto”, modern Homo sapiens. This perception pays homage to Neodarwinism even though the theory has never been demonstrated to be valid. No missing links have ever been found in the fossil record, which led to the punctuated equilibria theory that acknowledged this fact but proposed that random change was initiated by rapidly changing environmental circumstances. Well, the fossil record shows that new species appeared even during relatively calm times and emerged fully adapted to their circumstances. There are no semi-adapted creatures in the process of becoming. Even the large, cumbersome wingspan of the pterodactyls was ideal for the dense, humid air of the period. Clearly, there are some uncomfortable questions we need to ask.
One of the most influential inventions, rivaling the computer, was the mechanical clock. Inventors began to create many mechanisms that imitated life and the concept drew such enthusiasm that the metaphor of the machine was born. It was even considered a threat to religious beliefs as it was feared that mechanisms would succeed in explaining life. People began to organize activities in a mechanical fashion. A good example of this is the martial marching ‘lockstep’, which is often taken to extremes in certain armies as it enhances the perception of aggressiveness. In general, there was a dehumanizing tendency resulting in conformism with reduced individuality and inventiveness. The proliferating energies of the system have harnessed people into an intractable formation within society, united in the belief that mechanical principles of organization will produce the best results. Overburdening bureaucracies result.
In the socio-economic and environmental context, there is an increasing imperative to find a manner of coexistence that will promote survival. Philosophical formulations like Systems Theory project linkages between organisms and environments. Social Science uses Bio-power, an animalistic metaphor, to describe evolving political formations. Paradoxically non-human virtues are becoming more acceptable, as there is less and less contact with wild ecosystems.
We are in deep trouble and cling to a model of freedom that is illusory. Democracy and the idea that people can ever be free is a mesmerizing smoke ring in the air. Our thoughts and desires are modulated by the system which also controls our ability to maneuver financially. Globalization is an extension of this system of hierarchical power dispensation. A fast food culture hooked on strategies to increase the dose.
Old political concepts of Capitalism, Marxism and Fascism don’t help very much either. It could be more pertinent to recognize the fascist elements within ourselves which manifest as an over-weaning political correctness. How far are we from reporting our parent’s infringements just like the Stalinist era? Fascism is about control and manipulation to enforce doctrinal obedience. Isn’t this what we experience under the Capitalist pretence of democracy and freedom? In this sense, the focus on Multiculturalism, while laudable and even vital for immediate local survival, misses the larger dilemma. How does one integrate disparate cultures with environment in a mutually beneficial way?
Perhaps we need to take another look at the ape within; or is it located without? Are we an expression of the hive mentality, a unitary organism with individuals serving a common purpose? Where to draw the line?
Dreaming is a preeminent activity in some Aboriginal societies and they seem to understand inherently that realities are simply brief formulations stemming from the flux machine. The challenge is to find some way of reinventing our particular oppressive reality. On the face of it this means altering the borderlines. With true dreamlike intensity, we must simply see things differently.
How do we see? It seems that retinal information gets passed to the brain in parcels of information. Thus certain sectors might receive information about redness for example, while others might register movement. All of these sectors interconnect and also send back tendrils so that in effect a conversation is established. No doubt, hallucinogenic drugs heighten or depress activity in these centers so creating the possibility for altered projections. The critical thing though is that we project what we see even though we think that we are absorbing objective reality. This process seems to take place in the relay center called LGN, which is the nexus where the retinal information gets separated out. The information it receives back is no longer precisely visual so the “mind’s eye” as it were, makes interpretive choices. These are drawn from the chaos of possibilities, like competing voices influenced by a brain environment as complex as the experienced world.
In terms of art, drawing, not conceptualism, is the most congruent with how we really think. In most progressive educational institutions it is also the first to go. The post modern paradigm rescues the situation to some extent by refusing to give allegiance to any version, yet it is also redundant because it endorses style-ism even in being anti-style. It is necessary to dismantle the entire concept of art in order to assemble a fresh set of assumptions. Art is a process of manifesting structures which emanate from an imaginative chaos that generates reality because our consciousness is tutored to interpret meaning in this way. Art is potentially a weapon capable of burning through the lid that keeps comprehension contained.
So what role does consciousness really play? We presume that it allows us to learn about the world but it also functions as a censoring device, preventing us from having alternative visions. Thus we can become convinced that reality is a commonly shared perception. Cross-culturally this often leads to misunderstandings like the Bushman objection to being photographed because this will capture an essence that is supposed to remain fluid. Reductionists view consciousness as a combination of immediate sensory awareness with zombi-like processes going on beneath, like the habitual ability to ride a bicycle. Thinking is messy and intuitive, not calculated and clean. Consciousness selects and ignores, drawing on emotion and neural hesitations. There are too many voices, all shouting at once.
One of the cornerstones of Cartesian ideology and something we take as self-evident is the distinction between the “I” and the “It”. Identity has dominated art discourse for many decades and indeed often the signature is valued more than the artwork. Taking an aspect of identity and verifying it means asserting that we see it as truer than a previous perception. Politically this comes down to haranguing the passive audience until enough people endorse the idea which then passes into dominance. As a consequence the previous idea is denigrated and made unfashionable. New boundary lines are drawn.
It may surprise Westerners to learn that other cultures do not subscribe to the same definition of self. The “I” is often so submerged within tribal or group identity that names are forgotten and replaced with generic descriptions like “the old one”.
The possibilities of transmutation seem oddly more real now than ever with advances in genetic coding. Meat can be cultured and grown in a test tube. The citadel of the self is overrun and it is possible to have genes from other creatures within. Soon we might be able to choose from a catalogue what kind of entity we inhabit. Can we still say with certainty that we exist distinct from other life?
Relativity and Quantum Mechanics have changed the way we interpret time and space, making it impossible to ever locate the “It” again, except as a post-modern pastiche. Reality has to be seen in terms of energy and fields, with answers given as probabilities. At the sub-atomic level we are indistinguishable from other matter, and yet somehow a permeable mythical borderline cast around our molecules keeps everything together.
Fe’lix Guattari’s interesting term, Chaosmosis, is a contradictory concept that combines a sense of molecular movement with a sense of disorder. It is a good metaphor for describing a model of reality formation. Common wisdom would see reality as an immutable set of circumstances, with absolute laws. The imagination is spawned by the need to interact with reality. An alternate view would see the imagination as giving rise to reality. Which is more appropriate? Onion rings of interpretation, interpolated endlessly.
One common piece of wisdom is the concept that our brains are a ‘blank slate’. It is assumed that knowledge is gained through the senses and accumulates into experience. This model presumes that thoughts are immaterial and transitive; therefore they could not be immanent within a species. Yet, if we look at animals, they have a biological core of knowledge that is constantly reborn. Instinctively they know how to copulate or what to eat. Learning does take place but the instincts are there already and adult influences serve to activate rather than initiate behaviors. To what extent is there a morphic resonance within humans that outlasts the individual?
The “Promethean Gene” is proposed as the mythical inner initiator of creative activity. The theory follows the linear assumption that knowledge and inventiveness are somehow manipulated by consciousness into the formation of new constructs. “Inventiveness implies intentionality” as Erich Harthes puts it, envisioning a process of inventing the Stone-age axe. Knowledge gained from experience of flint edges plus trial and error eventually produce the final efficient product. But, if knowledge is indigenous within an organism, could we not be as instinctual as other creatures? In other words, the invention or creative act is a biological venting of the organism expressed as a metaphor. The front-end loader is an activated perception drawn from inchoate knowledge located within the body. If so, could this biological pool of imagination be the progenitor of reality. What we see around us is what we have created as an extension of our bodies.
Fundamental organizing principles in language influence the way we allow ourselves to think. For instance, the English preposition permits a range of positional possibilities like ‘above’, ‘through’ or ‘in’. Given the original religious cosmos that had humanity at its core, it is not surprising that we should still predominantly understand the world in terms of inner linear realities.
Thus Neodarwinism came to posit a chaotic chance procession based on natural selection of the best characteristics. Allied with studies in genetics, this meant seeing the nucleus and DNA within a cell as the progenitor of evolution. The doctrine of natural selection was enshrined over another theory, Transformism, developed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, which saw development as an interaction between environment and organism. In this theory it was possible for a learned characteristic to become an inherited one.
In experiments, if one excises the nuclei, cells continue to live until they require new parts. By contrast, if one eliminates the frequency receptors on the periphery, the cell becomes inactive. Thus it would seem that borders play a much larger role than they are given credit for. Perhaps Lamarck’s theory had more to offer, even though neither are really satisfactory explanations.
D’Arcy Thompson was an early 20th Century mathematician whose book, On Growth and Form, demonstrated that by altering the mathematical equations, a human form could be transformed into a baboon. Particles of matter are subject to certain constants like gravity and other laws of physics. NASA has developed the Darcy Machine to document and project all the forms life could possibly take, given the forces brought to bear by different environments. This is called the Book of Life project and it is powered by computers equipped with artificial intelligence.
An inherent drawback to conceptualizing existence lies in terms of the ‘inner’ metaphor. Our Reductionist way of thinking about thinking sees the brain within as the mastermind. Yet neurological studies emphasize the entire body as a sort of sensory field which takes impressions that are relayed to the brain. This is not a linear process but is comprised of creative feedback loops, thus providing a self referential system. Information is constantly shuffling back and forth, getting modified and finally projected. Thus our ‘mind’s eye’ is not a unitary homunculus waiting to receive information and act upon it but rather an entire system of impulses. In passing, we learn also that there is a second, separate ‘brain’ linked specifically to the stomach. How to unyoke tired ways of conceptualizing?
The ‘inner progenitor’ myth manifests in hierarchical structures like the familiar tree or root system and this pervades organizational patterns at all levels. The cult of personality epitomizes a top down set of values which partakes in the same metaphor. It is not flexible, requiring linearity in thought and instruction. Guattari has produced several useful alternative metaphors, one of which is the rhizome. This botanical structure is non- hierarchic and self-organizing. It can regenerate from any point and is free flowing, choosing to stop or change direction at will. Coincidentally, its properties have much in common with the internet. Once again, we are at the interface between organism and environment, or perhaps it is not even useful to distinguish between them.
What sort of art manifestation or organism could activate a new metaphor, one generating ideas that address the dilemma of reinventing the way we think; which will ultimately affect even what we physically see?
It could take the basic shape of an exchange show between two or more countries but be different in conception from previous manifestations. There would be a strong self- organizing principle so artists could interact or not with one another and the host environment. It might have a rolling format that shifts parameters from venue to venue, indicating that new artists with fresh perceptions could become part of the expression. Modes of thinking that depart from the dominant hierarchical paradigm would be complementary. Social issues are important but only valuable when the expression steps outside the conventional narrative. All media are valued equally so far as they advance the objective and depart from being merely stylistic. The point of the exercise is to present a new or alternative metaphor. Art is vital because it offers an entry point into our biological matrix that is less encumbered with restrictive code.
What this indicates is the need for a process of intellectual insurrection aimed at displacing the stagnant metaphors we are surrounded by. The changeover will happen once a certain critical mass is reached as greater numbers of artists and thinkers find ways of responding to the challenge. It’s long overdue.