Social Practice and Studio Practice

I think an artist is someone who gets to do whatever they want (within whatever limits might be containing them-financial, legal, ethical, psychological.) Other professions or practices don't have this level of freedom, dentists need to do dental work, dog trainers train dogs, etc. Those could be fun or not so fun professions to have, but regardless that is what those people need to do until they decide that they want to do something else. Artists can do a project about dentistry or dogs or anything else they are interested in at any time and then can do something else right after or even during, and still remain an artist.

Social Practice in regards to art can be looked at as anything that isn't studio practice. By studio practice I mean the dominate way of making art-spending time in a studio working out personal interests into the form of paintings, or objects, or photos, or videos, or some other pretty easily commodifiable form.

The often unspoken intention for this studio work is that it will go off to a desirable commercial gallery, be reproduced in art magazines, and eventually wind up in museum collections, while making the artist into a celebrity of sorts, and paying all of the bills. That is the carrot on the stick that keeps this dominate approach alive and kicking, even though very few of these studio practice artists ever get their work shown at all, and most just give up and find some other way to pay off their student loans.

I've just started up a Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University. There are currently eight students enrolled. They don't get studios like the other MFA students and instead have a shared office and a shared classroom space. Currently we are looking for a more public version of these spaces possibly in the form of an off-grid alternative energy portable building that might locate itself in different parts of the city in vacant lots and at grade schools, etc.

The students take some classes with the other studio MFA students but they also spend time on projects in various collaborative groups working with the city of Portland, various non-profits, and applying for public art projects in other places, as well as doing their own individual social practice work. I'm trying to show that artists can actually have sustained and supported careers within the public in ways that aren't possible when the commercial gallery is the primary system that artists are trying to respond to. So far it is going very well.

[Harrell Fletcher]

Image: "Some People From Around Here"
See also: Some People

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Dissemination of Information

Ben Goldacre: There is one university PR department in London that I know fairly well ... [and] until recently, they had never employed a single science graduate. This is not uncommon.

Science is done by scientists, who write it up. Then a press release is written by a non-scientist, who runs it by their non-scientist boss, who then sends it to journalists without a science education who try to convey difficult new ideas to an audience of either lay people, or more likely – since they’ll be the ones interested in reading the stuff – people who know their way around a t-test a lot better than any of these intermediaries. Finally, it’s edited by a whole team of people who don’t understand it. You can be sure that at least one person in any given “science communication” chain is just juggling words about on a page, without having the first clue what they mean, pretending they’ve got a proper job, their pens all lined up neatly on the desk.

amoebic vodka
: As for scientists taking responsiblilty for communicating science to the public, we have to ask why? In most cases companies and government bodies don’t expect the people responsible for decision making and doing the job to talk to the media. They employ spokespeople or entire PR departments to do that for them.

MostlySunny: What you have quite rightly highlighted in your column is the powerful effect the media has on society in shaping popular “opinion” and “morality”. The media defines for society “good”, “bad”, “right” and “wrong”.

John A: I have often read both scientific papers and the newspaper reports and have found that the reporter has completely misunderstood the paper and even added conclusions that just didn't hold. If a factually false and conceptually misleading article is written concisely and clearly is that good science reporting?

Disseminating knowledge from the scientific community to a scientifically undereducated public requires effort on the part of all those involved. Scientists communicate all the time at conferences, in papers and indeed to anyone who shows the remotest interest (as many have learned to their cost at parties). It is the media's job to inform and educate the public, not the front-line scientist's. If the media is incapable of understanding scientists and unwilling to employ those who can, it is lazy and unfair to demand that scientists should come to them while they remain resolutely fixed.

amoebic vodka:
We disagree that it is the job of the media to educate and inform. it is the job of the media to sell more copies, get more viewers or whatever it is the company in question needs to make money. In most cases this means the purpose of the media is to entertain (the exception perhaps being the BBC).

It’s not just science, the media misinterpretation of statistics in particular affects other subjects too. The annual ‘exams are getting easier’ stories for example.

Debate taken from 'Bad Science' blog, see here


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Young and Free

The suppression of spontaneous feelings, and thereby of the development of genuine individuality, starts very early, as a matter of fact with the earliest training of a child.

This is not to say that training must inevitably lead to suppression of spontaneity if the real aim of education is to further the inner independence and individuality of the child, its growth and integrity.

In our culture, however, education too often results in the elimination of spontaneity and in the substitution of original psychic acts by superimposed feelings, thoughts, and wishes. (By original I do not mean, let me repeat, that an idea has not been thought before by someone else, but that it originates in the individual, that it is the result of his own activity and in this sense is his thought.)


Feeling


... most children have a certain measure of hostility and rebelliousness as a result of their conflicts with a surrounding world that tends to block their expansiveness and to which, as the weaker opponent, they usually have to yield. It is one of the essential aims of the educational process to eliminate this antagonistic reaction.

... early in his education, the child is taught to have feelings that are not at all "his"; particularly is he taught to like people, to be uncritically friendly to them, and to smile.

What education may not have accomplished is usually done by social pressure in later life. If you do not smile you are judged lacking in a "pleasing personality" - and you need to have a pleasing personality if you want to sell your services, whether as a waitress, a salesman, or a physician. Only those at the bottom of the social pyramid, who sell nothing bit their physical labour, and those at the very top do not need to be particularly "pleasant".

Friendliness, cheerfulness, and everything that a smile is supposed to express, become automatic responses which one turns on and off like an electric switch.

To be sure, in many instances the person is aware of merely making a gesture; in most cases, however, he loses that awareness and thereby the ability to discriminate between the pseudo feeling and spontaneous friendliness.

Thinking


From the very start of education original thinking is discouraged and ready-made thoughts are put into people's heads.

How this is done with young children is easy enough to see. They are filled with curiosity about the world, they want to grasp it physically as well as intellectually. They want to know the truth, since that is the safest way to orient themselves in a strange and powerful world. Instead they are not taken seriously, and it does not matter whether this attitude takes the form of open disrespect or of the subtle condescension which is usual towards all who have no power (such as children or sick people).

Although this treatment by itself offers strong discouragement to independent thinking, there is a worse handicap: the insincerity - often unintentional - which is typical of the average adult's behaviour towards a child.

This insincerity consists partly in the fictitious picture of the world which the child is given ... Besides this general misrepresentation of the world there are the many specific facts which, for various personal reasons, adults do not want children to know.

From a bad temper, which is rationalized as justified dissatisfaction with the child's behaviour, to concealment of the parents' sexual activities and their quarrels, the child is "not supposed to know" and his inquiries meet with hostile or polite discouragement.

--

... [Small children] have an ability to feel and think that which is really theirs; this spontaneity shows in what they say and think, in the feelings that are expressed in their faces.

It appeals profoundly to everyone who is not so dead himself that he has lost the ability to perceive it. As a matter of fact, there is nothing more attractive and convincing than spontaneity whether it is to be found in a child, in an artist, or in those individuals who cannot thus be grouped according to age or profession.

Most of us can observe at least moments of our own spontaneity which are at the same time moments of genuine happiness. Whether it be the fresh and spontaneous perception of a landscape, or the dawning of some truth as the result of our thinking, or a sensuous pleasure that is not stereotyped, or the welling up of love for another person - in these moments we all know what a spontaneous act is and may have some vision of what human life could be if these experiences were not such rare and uncultivated occurrences.

[Erich Fromm]
The Fear of Freedom, p.208-10, 213, 224

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Useless Information


I want to mention briefly some of the educational methods used to-day which in effect further discourage original thinking. One is the emphasis on knowledge of facts, or I should rather say on information.

The pathetic superstition prevails that by knowing more and more facts one arrives at knowledge of reality. Hundreds of scattered and unrelated facts are dumped into the heads of students; their time and energy are taken up by learning more and more facts so that there is little left for thinking. To be sure, thinking without a knowledge of facts remains empty and fictitious; but "information" alone can be just as much of an obstacle to thinking as the lack of it.

[Erich Fromm]
The Fear of Freedom, p.213-14

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In the spectacular society, knowledge is not used anymore to question, analyze, resolve contradictions, but to assuage reality.

Taken from Wikipedia page on Situationist International: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Situationist_International

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Because of the long hysteresis of the mode of acquisition, the same educational qualifications may guarantee quite different relations to culture - but decreasingly so, as one rises in the educational hierarchy and as more value comes to be set on ways of using knowledge and less on merely knowing.

[Pierre Bourdieu]
Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, p.80

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J.F. - Yes. Thanks to the emergence of science, the conviction that something exists that we can call objective became more widely accessible. This was knowledge open to everyone, not only the sage.

M. - Spiritual knowledge is open to everyone willing to take the trouble to explore it. That's how you become a sage. Otherwise, 'objective' knowledge, immediately accessible to anyone without them putting any effort into it themselves, can only be knowledge's lowest common denominator. You could call it a quantitative approach rather than a qualitative one.

[Jean-Francois Revel & Matthieu Ricard]
The Monk and the Philosopher, p.327

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Science covers such a vast field of discovery that it's captivated the interest and energy of many of the brightest minds of our times. It's like a never-ending gold rush.

The risk of science, real science, is that it gets too carried away by its analytical momentum and goes too far, so that knowledge gets too horizontally spread out. There's an Arab proverb that says once you begin counting you'll never be able to stop.

[Matthieu Ricard]
The Monk and the Philosopher, p.218

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Ideas with Weight

Character in the dynamic sense of analytical psychology is the specific form in which human energy is shaped by the dynamic adaptation of human needs to the particular mode of existence of a given society.

Character in its turn determines the thinking, feeling, and acting of individuals.

To see this is somewhat difficult with regard to our thoughts, since we all tend to share the conventional belief that thinking is an exclusively intellectual act and independent of the psychological structure of the personality.

This is not so, however, and the less so the more our thoughts deal with ethical, philosophical, political, psychological or social problems rather then with the empirical manipulation of concrete objects.

Such thoughts, aside from the purely logical elements that are involved in the act of thinking, are greatly determined by the personality structure of the person who thinks. This holds true for the whole of a doctrine or of a theoretical system as well as for a single concept, like love, justice, equality, sacrifice. Each such concept and each doctrine has an emotional matrix and this matrix is rooted in the character structure of the individual.

... [An example would be] the emotional roots of early Protestantism.

The fact that ideas have an emotional matrix is of the utmost importance because it is the key to the understanding of the spirit of a culture. Different societies or classes within a society have a specific social character, and on its basis different ideas develop and become powerful.

Thus, for instance, the idea of work and success as the main aims of life were able to become powerful and appealing to modern man on the basis of his aloneness and doubt; but propaganda for the idea of ceaseless effort and striving for success addressed to the Pueblo Indians or to Mexican peasants would fall completely flat. These people with a different kind of character structure would hardly understand what a person setting forth such aims was talking about even if they understood his language.

In the same way, Hitler and that part of the German population which has the same character structure quite sincerely feel that anybody who thinks that wars can be abolished is either a complete fool or a plain liar. On the basis of their social character, to them life without suffering and disaster is as little comprehensible as freedom and equality.

Ideas often are consciously accepted by certain groups, which, on account of the peculiarities of their social character, are not really touched by them; such ideas remain a stock of conscious convictions, but people fail to act according to them in a critical hour.

The vast majority of German workers before Hitler's coming into power voted for Socialist or Communist Parties and believed in the ideas of those parties; that is, the range of these ideas among the working class was extremely wide. The weight of these ideas, however, was in no proportion to their range.

They had deep-seated respect and longing for established authority. The emphasis of socialism on individual independence versus authority, on solidarity versus individualistic seclusion, was not what many of these workers really wanted on the basis of their personality structure.

... [Protestant and Calvinist] ideas were powerful forces within the adherents of the new religion, because they appealed to needs and anxieties that were present in the character structure of the people to whom they were addressed.

In other words, ideas can become powerful forces, but only to the extent to which they are answers to specific human needs prominent in a given social character.

[Erich Fromm]
The Fear of Freedom, p.239-42

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The Artist's Way

While spontaneity is a relatively rare phenomenon in our culture, we are not entirely devoid of it ... we know of individuals who are - or have been - spontaneous, whose thinking, feeling, and acting were the expression of their selves and not of an automaton. These individuals are known mostly to us as artists.

As a matter of fact, the artist can be defined as an individual who can express himself spontaneously. If this were the definition of an artist - Balzac defined him just in that way - then certain philosophers and scientists have to be called artists too, while others are as different from them as an old-fashioned photographer from a creative painter.

There are other individuals who, though lacking the ability - or perhaps merely the training - for expressing themselves in an objective medium as the artist does, possess the same spontaneity.

The position of the artist is vulnerable, though, for it is really only the successful artist whose individuality or spontaneity is respected; if he does not succeed in selling his art, he remains to his contemporaries a crank, a "neurotic". The artist in this matter is in a similar position to that of the revolutionary throughout history. The successful revolutionary is a statesman, the unsuccessful one a criminal.

[Erich Fromm]
The Fear of Freedom, p.223-4

Image of Momus

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Life in (Spontaneous) Action

Spontaneous activity is the one way in which man can overcome the terror of aloneness without sacrificing the integrity of his self; for in the spontaneous realization of the self man unites himself anew with the world - with man, nature, and himself.

Love is the foremost component of such spontaneity; not love as the dissolution of the self in another person, not love as the possession of another person, but love as spontaneous affirmation of others, as the union of the individual with others on the basis of the preservation of the individual self.

Work is another component; not work as a compulsive activity in order to escape aloneness, not work as a relationship to nature which is partly one of dominating her, partly one of worship of and enslavement by the very products of man's hands, but work as creation in which man becomes one with nature in the act of creation.

The basic dichotomy that is inherent in freedom - the birth of individuality and the pain of aloneness - is dissolved on a higher plane by man's spontaneous action.

... the self is as strong as it is active. There is no genuine strength in possession as such, neither of material property nor of mental qualities like emotions or thoughts.

Ours is only that to which we are genuinely related by our creative activity, be it a person or an inanimate object. Only those qualities that result from our spontaneous activity give strength to the self and thereby form the basis of its integrity. The inability to act spontaneously, to express what one genuinely feels and thinks, and the resulting necessity to present a pseudo self to other and oneself, are the root of inferiority and weakness.

Process vs. Outcome

This implies that what matters is the activity as such, the process and not the result. In our culture the emphasis is just the reverse.

We produce not for a concrete satisfaction but for the abstract purpose of selling our commodity ... In the same way we regard our personal qualities and the result of our efforts as commodities that can be sold for money, prestige, and power.

The emphasis thus shifts from the present satisfaction of creative activity to the value of the finished product. Thereby man misses the only satisfaction that can give him real happiness - the experience of the activity of the present moment - and chases after a phantom that leaves him disappointed as soon as he believes he has caught it - the illusory happiness called success.

[Erich Fromm]
The Fear of Freedom, p.224-6

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Pressure Valve

It would seem the amount of destructiveness to be found in individuals is proportionate to the amount to which expansiveness of life is curtailed.

By this we do not refer to individual frustrations of this or that instinctive desire but to the thwarting of the whole of life, the blockage of spontaneity of the growth and expression of man's sensuous, emotional, and intellectual capacities.

Life has an inner dynamism of its own; it tends to grow, to be expressed, to be lived. It seems that if this tendency is thwarted the energy directed towards life undergoes a process of decomposition and changes into energies directed towards destruction.

The more the drive toward life is thwarted, the stronger is the drive towards destruction; the more life is realized, the less is the strength of destructiveness. Destructiveness is the outcome of unlived life.

Those individual and social conditions that make for suppression of life produce the passion for destruction that forms, so to speak, the reservoir from which the particular hostile tendencies - either against others or against oneself - are nourished.

[Erich Fromm]
The Fear of Freedom, p.157-8

Within a given collectivity, the collective shadow is the same. That is, in each individual it contains all that is not acceptable in the cultural milieu to which that individual belongs. The collective shadow is the dark other side of the collective ideal.

During the anti-sexual era of Queen Victoria the collective shadow showed itself in the blossoming of pornographic literature.

The personal shadow works destructively against ego-ideals; the collective shadow tries to demolish collective ideals. Both these shadows have a very valuable function. Both ego and collective ideals must be repeatedly subjected to attack, since they are false and one-sided. Were they not continually being eaten into from the depths of the human soul, there would be neither individual nor collective development.

... only he who is capable of saying "No" to the world is also capable of affirming it. Only he who has the freedom to destroy can freely turn to the world with love.

[Adolf Guggenbühl-Craig]
Power In The Helping Professions, p.112-3, 116

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Obey Yourself

Analysis shows that conscience rules with a harshness as great as external authorities, and furthermore that frequently the contents of the orders issued by man's conscience are ultimately not governed by demands of the individual self but by social demands which have assumed the dignity of ethical norms.

The rulership of conscience can be even harsher than that of external authorities, since the individual feels its orders to be his own; how can he rebel against himself?

Instead of overt authority, "anonymous" authority reigns. It is disguised as common sense, science, psychic health, normality, public opinion. It does not demand anything except the self-evident. It seems to use no pressure but only mild persuasion.

Whether a mother says to her daughter, "I know you will not like to go out with that boy", or an advertisement suggests, "Smoke this brand of cigarettes - you will like their coolness", it is the same atmosphere of subtle suggestion which actually pervades our whole social life.

Anonymous authority is more effective than overt authority, since one never suspects that there is any order which one is expected to follow. In external authority it is clear that there is an order and who gives it; one can fight against the authority, and in this fight personal independence and moral courage can develop.

[Erich Fromm]
The Fear of Freedom, p.143-4

Well Adapted?

Most psychiatrists take the structure of their own society so much for granted that to them the person who is not well adapted assumes the stigma of being less valuable.

On the other hand, the well adapted person is supposed to be the more valuable person in terms of a scale of human values.

If we differentiate the two concepts of normal and neurotic, we come to the following conclusion: the person who is normal in terms of being well adapted is often less healthy than the neurotic person in terms of human values.

Often he is well adapted only at the expense of having given up his self in order to become more or less the person he believes he is expected to be. All genuine individuality and spontaneity may have been lost.

On the other hand, the neurotic person can be characterized as somebody who was not ready to surrender completely in the battle for his self ... from the standpoint of human values, he is less crippled than the kind of normal person who has lost his individuality altogether.

... there is a discrepancy between the aims of the smooth functioning of society and of the full development of the individual.

[Erich Fromm]
The Fear of Freedom, p.119-20

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Doing the Good

I was walking home the other day, when I came across a car with its boot open. I'd noticed from a distance that it was open, and upon reaching the car had come to the conclusion that it had been left this way unattended; in the distance that it had taken me to reach the car the owner hadn't appeared to remove items, or to shut the boot.

As I drew near I looked inside, finding that it was relatively full, with various items. I was surprised that all this stuff hadn't already been taken by opportunist thieves.

At this point I was distracted by a guy in the distance shouting to me; he must have seen me slowing down to look inside, and, though I couldn't make out exactly what he was saying, I presumed it was something about taking something from the car; he had a smile on his face and seemed to endorse me helping myself. He walked on, and so did I.

I'd been walking for a few minutes when it suddenly struck me as absolutely absurd that I hadn't closed the boot. I quickly made my way back to the car and to my relief everything was as it had been; all of the stuff in the boot was still there. I slammed it shut and continued on home.

Reflecting on incident, I was struck by why it had taken me so long to identify and do the right thing. I think there are a few reasons.

Transgressive Moments

To shut the boot involved a slight transgression, in that I was compelled to step outside of my world and into someone else's. In other words, this incident had been thrust upon me; it wasn’t part of the fantasy I had, until this point, been living. It seems transgressive incidents like these can come in many forms; from the unimpinging (such as this) through to the more affecting (like being mugged, witnessing a violent crime, and so on). I was compelled to react to a moment that was unrehearsed, and for which I was unprepared; this is perhaps the crux of the transgressive moment - a compulsion to act outside the range of your normal repertoire.

Because the thoughts and actions involved were relatively foreign to my day-to-day vocabulary, my reaction was not instantaneous, and I walked on. Only after a moments thought did I realise the right, and obvious, course of action.

Capitalist Thinking

The prevailing attitudes and values of capitalist society engender a certain mode of thought, especially when it comes to ideas like property. Capitalism, in theory at least, allows us the freedom to master our own fate; every individual can try his luck – his is the risk, and his the gain. In allowing us this freedom, it also pits us against each other, and we all become potential competitors for capital.

The idea of competition engenders a prevalent attitude of hostility, and ‘every man for himself’ becomes the unconscious dictate. If he has that, then the inevitable implication is that I do not (unless, of course, I have the same model …). Psychologist Erich Fromm talks about the affects of capitalist society upon man; “His relationship to his fellow men, with everyone a potential competitor, has become hostile and estranged; he is free – that is, he is alone, isolated, threatened from all sides.”1

In an atmosphere like this our attitudes toward another person’s property may become uncharitable, especially if we feel that we have been badly treated by the system. Fromm goes on to say, "In all social and personal relations the laws of the market are the rule. It is obvious that the relationship between competitors has to be based on mutual human indifference."2

To protect a stranger’s life is one thing, but to protect his property is another, especially within an environment that encourages a climate of indifference. It may be that, if only unconsciously, capitalist thinking – the way of thinking that we are surrounded by in this country – leads to questionable ethics regarding the property of strangers (‘stranger’ as synonym for ‘competitor’).

In this instance, I don’t think this mode of thought consciously affected my actions, but it may have slowed my reaction on an unconscious level. Why protect another man’s property - his booty? It is, after all, every man for himself.

Fear of the bad

In closing the boot there was a chance that my actions could have been misinterpreted, had someone been observing. I was walking along with my bike, and so the car was clearly not mine. To touch the car – to touch another person’s property without asking – is an encroachment, albeit a very minor one.

We seem to be very afraid of encroachments. There are undoubtedly a myriad of reasons for this, not least the various sensationalist scare-stories that provide daily fodder for the media, and the ensconcement of this media within a capitalist system that, as we’ve touched upon, ferments such stories. We are increasingly led to fear one another, and this inevitably leads to distance.

I was afraid to have my actions misinterpreted because I did not want to be seen doing the bad; in other words, I didn’t want it to look as if I had committed an unethical act (theft, vandalism, etc). I was, again perhaps only unconsciously, so afraid of being seen as doing the bad, that I hesitated to do the good.

An environment of fear creates distance, and makes it harder for us to act. If we are so afraid of being conceived as doing the bad, then it is likely that we will also miss many opportunities to do the good; an unfortunate outcome that I, through initially walking away, almost helped embody.


1 Fromm, Erich. The Fear of Freedom, p.54
2
Fromm, Erich. The Fear of Freedom, p.102

A Friendly Challenge

Because of the split archetype, destructiveness in the sense of the archetypal shadow, the unconscious, etc., is no longer primarily the therapist's problem; he has shaken it off and experiences it only in projections, so that by and large he enjoys something resembling inner peace.

He is merely confirmed in what he already knows. His blind spot prevents him from seeing the decisive dark areas of his own being; or, if he grasps them intellectually, he is still not emotionally gripped by his self-knowledge.

In order to break free of this vicious circle the therapist must expose himself to something which touches him deeply, something un-analytical (he is already too much the master of analytical technique) which repeatedly throws him off balance, stimulates him, shows him time and again who he is, how weak and pompous, how vain and narrow.

It is surely not by chance that Socrates sang the praises of friendship.

Friendship

Friendship, loving but forceful encounters with one's equals, to attack and be attacked, to insult and be insulted - all of this strikes again and again at the psychic center of those involved. What the analyst needs is symmetrical relationships, relationships with partners who are up to his mark, friends who dare to attack him, to point out not only his virtues but his ridiculous sides.

Many analysts maintain that they cultivate intensive friendships, when what they actually do is gather a circle of disciples around them and bask in the admiration [...] Still other analysts destroy genuine friendships by transforming them into analytical relationships, avoiding the real problems of friendship through analytical and psychodynamic formulations.

Friendship intensely lived - and intensely suffered - saves many a therapist from inextricable entanglement in his own dark and destructive side. Hatred and love flow back and forth between friends; love circles around the positive potential, and hatred around the negative.

The psychotherapist must be challenged by something which cannot be either mastered or fended off by his analytical weapons and techniques. Works of art may shake one, the study of history may stimulate, an interest in natural science may lead to tortured questions. But the clever analyst finds it all too easy somehow to press all such things into the analytical framework.

Friends both male and female, wives or husbands, brothers and sisters, children, relatives - all of these often have the power to challenge the analyst and the ability not to fall victim to his clever attempts at deterrence.

But in these cases there must be awareness of the danger that therapist-friends often become therapist-accomplices, cleverly assisting in the battle against individuation, careful not to challenge the other in order not to be challenged themselves, and thus providing additional weapons against further psychological development.

The analyst can try and defend himself against his friend's words, but he knows his friend is not just being hostile and that there must be a kernel of truth in what he says [...] An analyst may have the most serious confrontation with those closest to him; and as long as he remains open within the love relationship, he must take these reactions seriously. This brings him into ever-renewed contact with his own shadow.[Contact with the shadow stimulates the individuation process] by bringing new movement to a psyche grown rigid. The soul opens up once again.

The important thing is the involvement, the joy and sorrow, the disappointment and surprise, which flows back and forth between people who love one another. The experience of eros between two people, and its fructifying effect on the psyche, cannot be described in dry psychological terms, but only represented artistically. Once it has taken place, of course, it can again be put into analytical terms and grasped that way. But those psychological concepts must in turn be repeatedly relieved by the immediacy of erotic experience. And this can only be effective - fully and deeply effective - when it takes place between people who love each other, rather than between doctor and patient, analyst and analysand, or master and pupil.

The point is that he must actively, painfully and joyfully come into direct contact in his dealings with his fellow men. He must somehow find a way to once more expose himself to the most difficult challenges. He must be shaken. The senile "I know, I know" must become the Socratic "I don't know."

The tools with which he can aid others may spell his own psychic doom. He can fend off any challenges; his patients are no match for him, and even the challenge of religion can be depotentiated by his mastery of analytical concepts.

Only through the emotional interchange with those to whom he stands in a relation of love can a new dimension be brought into his benumbed world. If he fails to achieve this, if he succeeds in using his psychology to drain and empty his interpersonal relations he becomes a tragic figure.

[Adolf Guggenbühl-Craig]
Power In The Helping Professions, p.134-6, 148-155

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Know It All?

The teacher-student encounter runs parallel to an inner tension between the states of being a knowledgeable adult and an unknowing child.

In every adult there is a child who constantly leads us on to new things. The adult's knowledge makes him rigid and inaccessible to innovation. The unknowing child's irrational experimentation, his naive openness, must be retained as a living potential in every adult if he is to remain emotionally alive. Thus the adult is never completely grown up; if he is to be somewhat healthy psychically, he must always keep a certain childlike unknowingness.

One often meets teachers who seem to have lost every trace of childishness, who have even fewer childish traits then the average healthy adult. Such teachers have become "only-teachers," who confront unknowing children almost as their enemy. They complain that children know nothing and do not wish to learn; their nerves are torn by their students' childishness and lack of self-control.

For this kind of teacher children are the Other, that which he himself wishes never to be. Such teachers derive a certain pleasure from demonstrating their power over children, tormenting them and keeping them in line with carefully calculated mathematical "averages."

A dynamic teacher must have a certain childishness in himself, just as a doctor must have a vital relationship to the pole of illness.

He must not only transmit knowledge but also awaken a thirst for knowledge in the children, but this he can only do so if the knowledge-hungry, spontaneous child is still alive within him.

When [the teacher's childishness is repressed and projected onto the pupils] learning progress is blocked. The children remain children and the knowing adult is no longer constellated in them ... Children are his enemies, representing the internally split pole of the archetype, whose reunification is attempted through power.

[Adolf Guggenbühl-Craig]
Power In The Helping Professions, p.104-6

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Silent Violence

See No Evil

Pleasure is inconceivable without pain; light without darkness; love without hate; good without evil … the denial of suffering is the negation of life itself.

The creation of tragedy is both a response to the horrors of life and a way of mastering them … we are saying ‘Yes’ to life as it actually is.

[Anthony Storr]

We watch films like Irreversible in order to gain some level of mastery over situations that are at the same time unimaginable and, unfortunately, very real.

We fear that these events exist, and that human beings are capable of bringing them into the world; but in order to accept the hazardous nature of existence we must attempt to come to terms with this side of life. Films like Irreversible offer a safe way of doing this.

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Evil and us

Doing the Good

Sell Yourself

Not long since, a strolling Indian went to sell baskets at the house of a well-known lawyer in my neighborhood. "Do you wish to buy any baskets?" he asked. "No, we do not want any," was the reply. "What!" exclaimed the Indian as he went out the gate, "do you mean to starve us?"

Having seen his industrious white neighbors so well off, - that the lawyer had only to weave arguments, and by some magic wealth and standing followed, he had said to himself; I will go into business; I will weave baskets ; it is a thing which I can do.

Thinking that when he had made the baskets he would have done his part, and then it would be the white man's to buy them. He had not discovered that it was necessary for him to make it worth the other's while to buy them, or at least make him think that it was so, or to make something else which it would be worth his while to buy.

I too had woven a kind of basket of a delicate texture, but I had not made it worth any one's while to buy them. Yet none the less, in my case, did I think it worth my while to weave them, and instead of studying how to make it worth men's while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them.

The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others?

[Henry David Thoreau]
Walden, p.19

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Adventure on life

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

... it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices.

No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What every body echoes or in silence passes by as true to-day may turn out to be falsehood to-morrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields.

Nature and human life are as various as our several constitutions. Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for an instant?

So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change. This is the only way, we say; but there are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from one centre.

The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of any thing, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?

When he has obtained those things which are necessary to life, there is anther alternative than to obtain the superfluities; and that is, to adventure on life now, his vacation from humbler toil having commenced.

[Henry David Thoreau]
Walden, p.9-12, 16

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Why are you so sure?

New Deeds for New People

Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost. One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of absolute value by living.

Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young then they were.

I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything, to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it.

If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about.

You may say the wisest thing you can old man, - you who have lived seventy years, not without honor of a kind, - I hear an irresistible voice which invites me away from all that. One generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels.

What old people say you cannot do you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new.

[Henry David Thoreau]
Walden, p.10, 12

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Respect Your Selves

Stating the Obvious | Introduction

On the Value of Stating the Obvious

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Back in 2003, philosopher Alain De Botton authored a book called The Art of Travel, which was subsequently adapted into a TV series of the same name. Reviewing the programme in his column Screen Burn, Charlie Brooker described De Botton as, “an absolute pair-of-aching-balls of a man - a slapheaded, ruby-lipped pop philosopher who's forged a lucrative career stating the bleeding obvious.”

This description will be our entry point into a brief examination of the concept of stating the obvious. We’ll be particularly interested in whether, contrary what the tone of Brooker’s quote may suggest, there can ever be value to stating the obvious, and if so, where and when this value arises.

Stating the Obvious | Nature of Obvious

The Nature of the Obvious

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As evidenced by Brooker’s criticism, stating the obvious is a concept that is often denigrated. He goes on to say that, “[De Botton] reveals that guide books are no substitute for exploring a place yourself, and that a hotel is an "anonymous" place … [his] entire travel philosophy boils down to "wherever you go, there you are" … if you pick up one of his books and read it cover to cover, you'll come away with less insight into the human condition than if you'd worked your way through a copy of Mr Tickle instead.”

It is safe to infer that Brooker feels he is being told things he knows already, information that is likely within clear sight. In other words, he fails to see the value of De Botton’s insights, most likely because they are, in his estimation, obvious. In this instance at least, he sees no value in being told things he either knows already, or could easily have inferred by himself - rather, he is looking for “insight into the human condition,” and insight, presumably, is not obvious.

Stating the Obvious | Nature of Obvious | Obvious vs. Not Obvious

Obvious vs. Not-obvious

But what is it that Brooker means by ‘obvious’? How do we work out what knowledge is obvious and what isn’t?

If we conceptualize the idea of knowledge on a sliding scale, with the most self-evident of propositions at one end, and the most esoteric and obscure at the other, then we can view the point at which knowledge goes from obvious to not-obvious as subjective and changeable - its position, like most other elements of the scale, being unique to each person. So, one person’s obvious can be another person’s obscure, just as what is obvious to one may also be obvious to another. There are forms of knowledge that, for most of us, will fall within the boundary of obvious, including, amongst other things, self-evident empirical facts related to the most basic of human experience (knowledge, for example, derived from intuition or sensation).

It is, however, a point of contention as to whether any form of knowledge can truly be called ‘obvious’, in the sense that it would be similarly self-evident to all – the things that we regard as most self-evident begin to lose their universal clarity when subjected to rigorous philosophic analysis. However, as interesting as it may be to probe deeper into this matter, this is not the place to explore the bounds of self-evident knowledge, or whether anything can be known without doubt: suffice it to say that when we refer to ‘obvious’ we are taking it as a subjectivism.

Now, let’s visualize Brooker’s sliding scale; he was disappointed with De Botton’s programme because the insight it afforded him, in his estimation, was not not-obvious. His expectations had led him to hope for not-obvious insight, expectations that De Botton confounded with insight that, on Brooker’s sliding scale, fell short of becoming not-obvious.

It is worth noting that there appears to be an assumption at play here; that is, when we watch a TV programme like this (a programme that in some way purports to expound knowledge, or insight) we should be told things that we consider not-obvious. We watch, therefore, in order to gain knowledge, amongst other things.

If Brooker is making this assumption, then it may not be unreasonable for him to feel short-changed by De Botton’s programme; it may, however, be unreasonable for him to make the assumption in the first place. The idea that insight is achieved through gain is an interesting one, and we’ll return to it later.

Having not seen the programme it would be unwise of me to assess its various successes and failures, and an analysis of it is not wholly useful to our investigation. We are interested in the fact that it has been criticized for stating the obvious, not that it has been criticized for stating the obvious in an uninteresting way (which may, in fact, be Brooker’s real criticism, even if he himself is unaware of it). The former attacks the notion of stating the obvious, whereas the latter attacks the manner in which the obvious is stated.

To clarify; we aren’t interested in the merits of De Botton’s work, or the validity of Brooker’s criticism in regard to these merits, both of which are subjectivisms; our interest lies in an element of this exchange.

Stating the Obvious | Nature of Obvious | Value of Not-obvious

Value of Not-obvious

Let’s get back to the idea of not-obvious insight, the kind of insight that Brooker was hoping for. De Botton is a philosopher, a person who makes it his project to ask questions about life, and to think things through, coming back from his mental travails with jewels of insight. But why is it that we need philosophers to do this thinking for us? We are capable of thought, of meditation; surely we could, if we wished, think things through ourselves and come to our own conclusions?

The value of philosophical insight is, amongst other things, that it comes to conclusions that our minds are theoretically capable of reaching; yet, due to intellectual limitations (resulting from, amongst other things, genetic, environmental, and psychological (intra-personal) factors) it is insight that we are, or believe ourselves to be, incapable of inducing. It may also be insight that we feel ourselves able to reach, but are, for whatever circumstances, unwilling to induce (e.g. we don’t have the time, motivation, etc).

In the same way that being able to kick a ball doesn’t make a professional footballer, to be able to think doesn’t necessarily lead to philosophical (not-obvious) insight.

Stating the Obvious | Value of the Obvious

Value of the Obvious

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Brooker could not see the value of being afforded insight that he viewed as obvious, perhaps because it was the not-obvious that he was expecting. It is at this point that we’ll ask; is there ever value to obvious insight? And, more generally, is there ever value in stating the obvious?

Stating the Obvious | Value of the Obvious | Dog-thought and Lion-thought

Dog-thought and Lion-thought

To Brooker the observation that a hotel is an anonymous place is a seemingly obvious one, just as it may be to many of us; yet, whilst we may have thought it before, we may not have given it much thought. In calling attention to it, De Botton allows us to meditate upon the idea.

Due to the pace of our lives, we may find it hard to find the time to think about things. Buddhist Matthieu Ricard describes two ways of thinking, ‘like a dog and like a lion. You might try to tackle your thoughts in the same way that a dog runs after every stone thrown at it, one after another. That’s just what human beings do most of the time, in fact. Whenever a thought arises, we let ourselves be carried away by it. That first thought gives rise to a second, then to a third, and to a whole endless chain of thoughts that only sustain our mental confusion. But the other way to react is like a lion. You can only throw one stone at a lion – because he turns on the thrower and jumps on him.”1

We may already know that a hotel is an anonymous place, but what is it to know this? To know something does not necessarily imply that we have given the thing in question much thought, something that is symptomatic of the ‘dog-like’ thinking that Ricard describes; as we think one thing (‘this hotel feels like an anonymous place’) the thought may quickly be replaced by another (‘I can smell food, which reminds me, I’m hungry’), and another (‘Where can I eat?’) and so on. Very soon the initial thought has become lost within the rhythm of experience.

In this sense we could see De Botton’s work as an invitation to react like a lion; that is, to step outside the flow of thoughts, in which most get lost, and to hold onto this one thought. We are allowed access to it; it is hauled up from a turbulent sea, and we are able to examine it once again; to see if it looks the same as we remember it looking, or if, perhaps, it appears changed.

Stating the Obvious | Value of the Obvious | Premature Cognitive Commitments

Premature Cognitive Commitments

This re-examining can be useful for a number of reasons. Importantly, we are afforded the opportunity to re-assess our position in relation to the thought in question. For example, in thinking a hotel an anonymous place, we may have, consciously or not, associated a value judgement: ‘hotels are mostly anonymous places (and therefore I don’t like hotels)’. It may be that this value was influenced by unexamined factors; in this instance, conventional wisdom could be the agency (‘an anonymous place is an undesirable place’), wisdom that we applied without considering whether it was true for us or not.

This mindset had its genesis in a fleeting moment, and was concretized without much consideration of the various judgements involved. Psychologist Ellen Langer describes these mindsets as ‘premature cognitive commitments’. She goes on to say, “When we accept an impression or a piece of information at face value, with no reason to think critically about it, perhaps because it seems irrelevant, that impression settles unobtrusively into our minds until a similar signal from the outside world calls it up again. At that next time it may no longer be irrelevant, but most of us don't reconsider what we mindlessly accepted earlier.”2

If, as Ricard describes, we mostly follow our thought in a mindless fashion, hurrying from one thought to the next, then there is a danger that we are unconsciously forming many premature cognitive commitments that may subsequently affect our experience of the world. In the example above, the person in question formed a negative opinion about hotels because they unquestioningly referred to conventional wisdom, without thinking through their own thoughts on the matter. It may be that this person, having considered whether anonymity was a good or bad thing in this instance, would have drawn much the same conclusions; however, these conclusions would be erected in much firmer ground.

It would be impractical to constantly be on the watch for premature cognitive commitments, or to always approach our thoughts like the aforementioned lion. Indeed, dog-like thinking is often a functional necessity of our daily experience. Yet as we’ve seen, the benefit of having something we already know brought to mind is that it allows us, if we wish, to engage our thoughts in a specific way; to re-assess ‘the obvious’ and our position in relation to it.

Stating the Obvious | Value of the Obvious | Knowing and Thinking

Knowing and Thinking

It might be handy at this point to probe briefly into the idea of ‘knowing.’ We’ll ingress with a quote from the Journal of Analytical Psychology, in which a reviewer, writing about R.D. Laing’s book The Divided Self, describes it as having “that particular touch of genius which causes one to say “Yes, I have always known that, why have I never thought of it before?”” This quote is of interest because it suggests that to know something can be different than to think of it; in other words, we can know something without having consciously articulated it in thought.

It may be that most of what we ‘know’ we have devoted very little concentrated thought to, and in this sense a lot of our knowledge may be unexamined. We’ve already looked into different ways of thinking, with Ricard’s ideas of dog-thought and lion-thought, and have seen how unexamined thought can lead to premature cognitive commitments, with all the various negative implications that these entail.

So it is worth bearing in mind that knowledge can be articulated to varying degrees, from unconscious knowledge through to articulated knowledge. Knowledge needn’t have been articulated –passed through a conscious thought process - in order to become assimilated. This is how we can arrive at the situation touched upon in the quote above, when we read a book and think ‘How obvious! How come I’ve never thought of it like that before?’

To meditate upon a thought is to flesh it out, and to assimilate it in a different way. To think about something in a concentrated fashion allows us to develop our own approach to it, and to prune away any unhelpful second-hand assumptions and prejudices that may, heretofore, have been attached.

It is in this sense that devoting thought to an obvious subject can produce valuable insight. In retrospect the insight offered by others may seem obvious because, had we allowed ourselves the conditions necessary to hold onto the thought, to pursue it to some conclusions, then we may have come to these same conclusions ourselves. It may well have been that we were only ever a short distance away from such insight.

Often it may be that a subject appears so obvious that we simply never devote any time to truly thinking about it; it is taken as a truism and left as that. In this sense we avoid ownership of the thought, and we open ourselves to the danger of committing to things that we do not truly believe in. To assess an idea and to come to our own conclusions is to take possession of it; to assume ownership of our thoughts is to assume responsibility for them.

It is natural that most knowledge will at some point recede to the back of our mind, as we once again get caught up in the daily flow of thought; in this sense knowledge becomes structural; unseen, yet potentially informing what we do and how we think. To know that we have taken the time to meditate upon important ideas, to fully take possession of them, allows us to be more in control of our knowledge and the way that it subsequently affects further thought and action.

Stating the Obvious | Value of the Obvious | Chipping Away

Chipping Away

In his introduction to the Positive Psychology class that ran at Harvard University in 2006, lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar inserted the following disclaimer; “You’re going to learn very few new things in this class … but [I hope to] provide you the opportunity – create the conditions – for you to chip away some excess stone …”

Shahar’s course was a master-class in stating the obvious, hence his well placed disclaimer. He elucidated, amongst other things, the benefits of getting enough sleep, of doing regular exercise, of meditation, of keeping a diary; he examined the dangers of perfectionism, surveyed techniques for becoming more productive, and expounded on the value of positive emotions. In all this he was true to his word; very few ‘new things’ were divulged.

So what then, was the value of his course?

It may be helpful to call to mind a maxim from American writer Henry David Thoreau; “The soul grows by subtraction, not addition.” We’ve already seen how we can become mindless to the frameworks that we are constructing in our minds; those commitments that we make without even realising that we are doing so. As we grow older we may have adopted many pervasive mindsets based upon un-examined information; we may be accepting things that we needn’t accept, placing limitations where they needn’t exist, or denying ourselves experience based upon insignificant fears.

In examining commonplace ideas, Shahar allowed his students a re-entry to them. The clue to the emphasis of the course is in the title; his explicit project was to provide insight into the field of Positive Psychology, which itself is concerned with examining and elucidating happiness (within Psychology, it can be seen as the positivist Yang to the traditional pathology-oriented Yin). In laying out these familiar ideas, Shahar invited his students to examine their approach to them, and to re-assess any troublesome assumptions or mindsets that they may have formed without noticing. In doing this they were able to break down (and subtract) negative or unhelpful frameworks, as well as put certain thoughts and ideas in perspective.

Psychologist James Hillman talks of this process – he describes it as “Shedding pseudoskins, crusted stuff that you've accumulated. Shedding dead wood. That's one of the big sheddings. Things that don't work anymore, things that don't keep you - keep you alive. Sets of ideas that you've had too long. People that you don't really like to be with, habits of thought, habits of sexuality … Or put it another way: Growth is always loss.”3

Crucially, the Positive Psychology course offered the chance to re-examine familiar ideas, but within an environment that facilitated the thorough consideration of those ideas. We can contrast this environment with the kind of day-to-day experience that brings about the dog-thought referred to by Ricard earlier. Shahar’s students were allowed to behave like lions: to (re)capture their thoughts, and, if necessary, re-frame them. Through looking at what was already there, already close at hand, and known, they were given the chance to shed what was not needed.

Stating the Obvious | Value of the Obvious | Stepping Outside the Flow

Stepping Outside the Flow

If things are as Ricard describes; if we are frequently victim to the rapid flow of our thoughts; and, if having our attention centred on something we already know can be a way of stepping outside of this flow, then it would seem that stating the obvious can also have value as a method for controlling time.

A statement like, ‘that monument is really big’ could function as a way of channelling vision – to point out something like this, is, amongst other things, to centre the flow of thoughts upon something. It may be that the next moment our thoughts have already forgotten about the monument and are onto something else, but the statement affords us to the opportunity to alight for a while.

It is, of course, possible that we may have thought about the monument without having it brought to our attention; and indeed, we may have meditated upon it of our own volition. But stating the obvious implies a social function, a subject to state the obvious to, and in this sense a truism like this can have value as a flow-altering device, both for the person saying it (as a reminder to themselves) and the person receiving the information.

Stating the Obvious | Value of the Obvious | A Reminder

A Reminder

We have seen that through recalling information we are afforded the opportunity to re-assess our relation to it. It’s also worth considering that stating the obvious can simply function as a reminder, bringing to mind something that we may have forgotten or become oblivious to.

Obvious things by their nature are often subject to being overlooked, and as such we run the risk of becoming mindless to them. In other words, the knowledge may have become so commonplace that we no longer are aware of it in the way that, at one point, we may have been.

This idea can be seen when a new person enters a workplace. If this person needs to be shown the ropes by a more experienced member of staff, then this process could, for the latter, involve relating a number of ‘obvious’ pieces of information. However, it may be that to the experienced staff member this information has become so obvious, so everyday, that they no longer remember that they even know it. The information has, in other words, become unconscious; it has become part of a process, and no longer exists in the way that, outside of this process, it may have done.

Langer talks about this idea, ‘Repetition can lead to mindlessness in almost any profession. If you asked an experienced and a novice typist to type a paragraph without the usual spaces separating words … it is likely that the person with less experience will have an edge … A familiar structure or rhythm helps lead to mental laziness, acting as a signal that there is no need to pay attention. The rhythm of the familiar lulls us into mindlessness …’4

So the presence of the novice, asking questions and making statements about the obvious, could function to retrieve information from the unconscious, and remind the expert of what they had, in some sense, forgotten.

Stating the Obvious | Against the Obvious

Against the Obvious

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To say that a person is stating the obvious is an observation, and is, in itself, not a criticism. At what point then does this neutral observation become a value-judgement? Let’s examine some of the ways in which the concept of stating the obvious may be devalued.

Stating the Obvious | Against the Obvious | Progress

Progress

The idea of progress is a prevalent myth in contemporary society. Scientific discoveries and technological advancements are frequently used to convince us that, as a race, we are advancing, even if voices from outside these areas would have us think otherwise. If science is a secular religion, then faith in progress is an inevitable fiction amongst the faithful.

Progress implies motion, a moving-forward, and engenders catchwords like ‘new’, ‘latest’, ‘modern’ and ‘original.’ In this sense, progress can often be at odds with the idea of inaction, and its various synonyms (‘reflection’, ‘meditation’, and ‘day-dreaming’). This, of course, needn’t be the case; progress can be achieved through inaction, but our interest lies in the point at which these two ideas become antithetical.

We’ve seen how, in allowing us to examine what we already know, stating the obvious can be of benefit, inasmuch as it allows us to ‘chip away’ at ourselves, or to shed skin. These ideas imply loss as a means of progression, and in this sense run contrary to the idea of progress that feeds the popular imagination, that of progress through discoveries - through gain.

We are led to covet the new and the latest, attitudes that are crystallised in the world of commodities. We live with a constant sense of motion, of moving forward, and this is compounded by the disposability of things; to have the latest model often involves jettisoning the one that is out of fashion, and so we become used to a constant sense of flux, to jumping from one to the next. Philosopher John Gray talks about this idea, “Progress condemns idleness. The work needed to deliver humanity is vast. Indeed it is limitless, since as one plateau of achievement is reached another looms up. Of course this is only a mirage; but the worst of progress is not that it is an illusion. It is that it is endless.”5

In many ways, then, the idea of inaction is foreign to the dominant way of life in our society. In light of this, the concept of stating the obvious, with its implications of deceleration (lion-thought vs. dog-thought), and loss as opposed to gain, can often be denigrated and belittled.

Stating the Obvious | Against the Obvious | Belief in Limited Resources

Belief in Limited Resources

At the beginning of this text we glanced at a quote from Charlie Brooker, in which he described philosopher Alain De Botton as having “forged a lucrative career stating the bleeding obvious.” At this point we should concede that Brooker is, amongst other things, a comedian; and as such, we aren’t to take his writings entirely at face value. However, inasmuch as they exhibit a recognizable attitude that exists at large they are useful to us, and it is in this sense that we shall use them as a jumping off point. With this in mind, our investigation of this attitude isn’t to be taken as a direct assailment of Brooker. It is also worth reiterating that, in questioning Brooker our project is not to be taken as a defence of De Botton; whatever merit his work has or does not have is of no interest to us here.

Getting back to the quote, it appears to imply that through stating the obvious De Botton’s ‘lucrative career’ is somehow undeserved. In speaking of the lucrative nature of De Botton’s work, Brooker’s overarching criticism appears to be rooted in a belief in limited resources. He is conscious of the fact that De Botton makes, in his estimation, a considerable amount of money from his work, work which draws value through telling us things that we know already.

Brooker’s unvoiced question may well be, ‘why should he forge a lucrative career through telling us things we know already (and therefore not trying very hard), whilst I am impelled to work hard for just rewards?’ Of course, it may be that Brooker is aware of the value of stating the obvious and merely feels that De Botton does so in an uninteresting or uninspired fashion; however, his criticism may be, as we touched upon, symptomatic of an attitude at large, the kind of attitude that does not see the value that could come from ‘stating the bleeding obvious.’ Because it allows us to elucidate an interesting point, we shall take him, in this instance, at face value.

So why might it be that someone would be opposed to a person making a career from stating the obvious, or, to a person simply stating the obvious in general? As we saw above, if we are all going somewhere, advancing, then the person stating the obvious – sticking with what is known – can be seen as standing still, and in this sense as going against the grain.

Capitalist values promote the idea of competition, of going out and taking before someone else takes it instead of you. Inherent within capitalist thinking (although not necessarily an exclusive product of it) is the idea we touched upon above, that is, the belief in limited resources. Ellen Langer talks of this idea; “One of the main reasons we may become entrapped by the absolute categories we create (or are given by someone else) rather than accept the world as dynamic and continuous is because we believe that resources are limited.”6

Langer goes on to mention how, “In discussions of limited resources, someone will always bring up money. Money, in most people’s experience, is limited.”7 Is this what we see in Brooker’s talk of a “lucrative career”? His criticism appears to rest on the idea that De Botton makes money from what, in his estimation, is doing very little of value. But why should it concern Brooker whether De Botton makes a lot of money? An ingrained and unexamined belief in limited resources (and by extension, absolute categories) may be partly to blame for this attitude, an attitude that is facilitated and fostered by the prevalent capitalist values that surround us.

Stating the Obvious | Conclusion

Conclusion

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Our investigation has shown that there can be value to stating the obvious. We’ve seen how it can allow us to re-access our thoughts, and to reconsider our relation to them, something that can be handy in combating premature cognitive commitments; we’ve also considered how it can act as a device for arresting the flow of thought, or as a way to bring to mind things we may have forgotten.

We briefly touched upon the ways in which the concept of stating the obvious may be devalued, inasmuch as it clashes with prevailing ideas that are seemingly inherent in current capitalism-engendered modes of thought, those that champion gain, through, amongst other things, the pursuit of knowledge.

Despite what commonplace assumptions may have us believe, it is worth remembering the value that we have explored here, especially if we are at all concerned with controlling and defining the way that we, as individuals, experience the world.


Earlier we considered Thoreau’s quote on the soul growing through subtraction, not addition; an idea that is prevalent in Eastern philosophy, and is exemplified in the following maxim from the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu: “In the pursuit of learning [knowledge], every day something is acquired. In the pursuit of Tao [wisdom], every day something is dropped.”8

We can gain knowledge through stating the obvious, or having the obvious stated to us; but perhaps, more importantly, stating the obvious allows us to pursue wisdom, the kind of wisdom that comes, not through gain, but through loss.

Stating the Obvious | Endnotes

Endnotes

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1. Ricard, Matthieu. The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life (co-authored with Jean-Francois Revel), p.84-5
2. Langer, Ellen. Mindfulness, p.22
3. Hillman, James. We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy - And the World's Getting Worse, p.8
4. Langer, Ellen. Mindfulness, p.21
5. Gray, John, Straw Dogs, p.195
6. Langer, Ellen. Mindfulness, p.27
7. Ibid., p.28
8. Lao-Tzu. Tao Te Ching, Chapter 48

Creative Partnerships

What is the other, the partner? He is never something static; he is life, development, past, present and future. To comprehend another person means relating not only to his present but to his past and his future.

Relationship always involves something creative. In using the word "creative," I mean the following: The human psyche is always full of new possibilities. It is constantly re-creating itself, so to speak, and is perpetually being re-created. An individual's psychic potential is limited, of course, but it is highly varied and many-faceted.

When we meet someone, it is unrelated and uncreative to see him as a snapshot, a fixed image. To encounter a person creatively means to weave fantasies around him, to circle around his potential.

Various images arise about the person and the potential relationship to him. Such creative fantasies are often quite far removed from so-called reality; they are as unreal, and as true, as fairy tales and myths. They use imaginative images to grasp the nature of the other person.

Even if they are not expressed, fantasies also influence the other person, awakening new living potential in him ... [They] are related to the nature of the other person; they represent, in symbolic-mythological form, his life potential.

These creative fantasies, this imaginative circumambulating of one's partner, are of the greatest importance in every human relationship ... Everyone needs to fantasy about himself, to circle about and awaken his own potential in mythological or fairy tale form.

[Adolf Guggenbühl-Craig]
Power In The Helping Professions, p.45, 47

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