The Creation of Meaning, pt. 2

Reading, viewing and listening involve constant focus-changing, as we sometimes swoop in on a stray particular and sometimes pull back to pan the whole.

Some readings or viewings approach a work head-on, while others sidle shyly up to it. Some cling to its gradual unfolding as a process in time, while others aim for a snapshot or spatial fix. Some slice it sideways, while others peer up at it from ground level.

There are critics who start off with their noses squashed up against the work, soaking up its most primitive first impressions, before gradually stepping backwards to encompass its surroundings. None of these approaches is correct. There is no correctness or incorrectness about it.

At their most useful, critical concepts are what allow us access to works of art, not what block them off from us. They are ways of getting a handle on them.

A critical concept [...] is a way of trying to do things with [the work of art], some of which work and some of which do not. At its best, it picks out certain features of the work so that we can situate it within a significant context.

And different concepts will disclose different features. Theorists are pluralists in this respect: there could be no set of concepts which opened up the work for us in its entirety.

[Terry Eagleton]
After Theory, p.93-5

Image: Momus' 'Unreliable Tour Guide'. See here.

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You laugh at my back, and I'll laugh at yours

Forget Your Self

Objectivity can mean a selfless openness to the needs of others, one which lies very close to love. It is the opposite not of personal interests and convictions, but of egoism. To try to see the other's situation as it really is is an essential condition of caring for them.

[...] genuinely caring for someone is not what gets in the way of seeing their situation for what it is, but what makes it possible. Contrary to the adage that love is blind, it is because love involves a radical acceptance that it allows us to see other for what they are.

To be concerned for another is to be present to them in the form of an absence, a certain self-forgetful attentiveness. If one is loved or trusted in return, it is largely this which gives one the self-confidence to forget about oneself, a perilous matter otherwise.

We need to think about ourselves partly because of fear, which the assurance which flows from being trusted allows us to overcome.

Disinterestedness


Disinterestedness [...] grew up in the eighteenth century as the opposite not of interests, but of self-interest [...] Disinterestedness means not viewing the world from some sublime Olympian height, but a kind of compassion or fellow-feeling. It means trying to feel your way imaginatively into the experience of another, sharing their delight and sorrow without thinking of oneself.

It is not that we do not have interests: it is just that our interest lies in another rather than in ourselves. This kind of imaginative sympathy [...] is its own reward; it does not seek for profit, but takes pleasure in the well-being of others with a well-nigh sensuous relish.

Disinterestedness [...] is in origin a radical political concept.

[Terry Eagleton]
After Theory, p.131, 133-4

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One Love?

Love is not primarily "caused" by a specific object, but a lingering quality in a person which is only actualized by a certain "object".

Hatred is a passionate wish for destruction; love is a passionate affirmation of an "object"; it is not an "affect" but an active striving and inner relatedness, the aim of which is the happiness, growth, and freedom of its object. It is a readiness which, in principle, can turn to any person and object including ourselves.

Exclusive love is a contradiction in itself. To be sure, it is not accidental that a certain person becomes the "object" of manifest love [...] The important point, however, is that love for a particular "object" is only the actualization and concentration of lingering love with regard to one person; it is not, as the idea of romantic love would have it, that there is only the one person in the world whom one can love, that it is the great chance of one's life to find that person, and that love for him results in a withdrawal from all others.

The kind of love which can only be experienced with regard to one person demonstrates by this very fact that it is not love but a sado-masochistic attachment.

The basic affirmation contained in love is directed towards the beloved person as an incarnation of essentially human qualities. Love for one person implies love for man as such.

Love for man as such is not, as it is frequently supposed to be, an abstraction coming "after" the love for a specific person, or an enlargement of the experience with a specific "object"; it is its premise, although, genetically, it is acquired in the contact with concrete individuals.

From this it follows that my own self, in principle, is as much an object of my love as another person. The affirmation of my own life, happiness, growth, freedom, is rooted in the presence of the basic readiness of and ability for such an affirmation. If an individual has this readiness, he has it also towards himself; if he can only "love" others, he cannot love at all.

[Erich Fromm]
The Fear of Freedom, p.98-100

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Selfishness and Self-love

Selfishness is not identical with self-love but with its very opposite. Selfishness is one kind of greediness. Like all greediness, it contains an insatiability, as a consequence of which there is never any real satisfaction. Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.

Close observation shows that while the selfish person is always anxiously concerned with himself, he is never satisfied, is always restless, always driven by the fear of not getting enough, of missing something, of being deprived of something. He is filled with burning envy of anyone who might have more.

If we observe closer still, especially the unconscious dynamics, we find that this type of person is basically not fond of himself, but deeply dislikes himself.

Selfishness is rooted in this very lack of fondness for oneself. The person who is not fond of himself, who does not approve of himself, is in constant anxiety concerning his own self. He has not the inner security which can exist only on the basis of genuine fondness and affirmation. He must be concerned about himself, greedy to get everything for himself, since basically he lacks security and satisfaction.

The same holds true with the so-called narcissistic person, who is not so much concerned with getting things for himself as with admiring himself. While on the surface it seems that these persons are very much in love with themselves, they are actually not fond of themselves, and their narcissism - like selfishness - is an overcompensation for the basic lack of self-love.

[Erich Fromm]
The Fear of Freedom, p.98-100

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(Post)modernist Soup

All the tricks that artists had used for millennia to please the human palate were cast aside. In painting, realistic depiction gave way to freakish distortions of shape and colour and then to abstract grids, shapes, dribbles, splashes, and [...] blank white canvas.

In poetry, the use of rhyme, meter, verse structure, and clarity were frequently abandoned. In music, conventional rhythm and melody were set aside in favour of atonal, serial, dissonant, and twelve-tone compositions. In architecture, ornamentation, human scale, garden space, and traditional craftsmanship went out the window [...] and buildings were "machines for living" made of industrial materials in boxy shapes.

Why did the artistic elite spearhead a movement that called for such masochism? In part it was touted as a reaction to the complacency of the Victorian era and to the naïve bourgeois belief in certain knowledge, inevitable progress, and the justice of the social order.

The great project of modern art was to diagnose, and cure, the sickness unto death of modern humankind ... [Its artistic mission] is to identify and strip away the false sense of routine experience and interpretive framing provided by conformist mass commercial society, and to make us experience nakedly and anew the immediacy of reality through our peeled and rejuvenated senses.

This therapeutic work is also a spiritual mission, in that a community of such transformed human beings would, in theory, be able to construct a better kind of society.

The enemies of the process are cooptation, commercial exploitation and reproduction, and kitsch ... Fresh, raw experience - to which artists have an unmediated and childlike access - is routinized, compartmentalized, and dulled into insensibility by society.

Postmodernism was even more aggressively relativistic, insisting that there are many perspectives on the world, none of them privileged. It denied even more vehemently the possibility of meaning, knowledge, progress, and shared cultural values.

It was more Marxist and far more paranoid, asserting that claims to truth and progress were tactics of political domination which privileged the interests of straight white males. According to the doctrine, mass-produced commodities and media-disseminated images and stories were designed to make authentic experience impossible.

The goal of postmodernist art is to help us break out of this prison. The artists try to preempt cultural motifs and representational techniques by taking capitalist icons (such as ads, package designs, and pinup photos) and defacing them, exaggerating them, or presenting them in odd contexts.

In postmodernist literature, authors comment on what they are writing whilst they are writing it. In postmodernist architecture, materials and details from different kinds of buildings and historical periods are thrown together in incongruous ways [...] Postmodernist films contain sly references to the filmmaking process or to earlier films.

[Steven Pinker]
(with quote from Frederick Turner)
The Blank Slate ('The Arts'), p.409-11

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Take a break (watch a film)

Part of the appeal of films is that they offer us the opportunity for exploration. They are a way to explore the world (and imaginary worlds) in lieu - or instead - of physical exploration. In our lifetime we may never have the opportunity to travel to certain places and see certain sights - in light of this, film can act as a substitute, allowing us to know the world without traveling it.

In this sense, we could enjoy a film entirely for the landscapes that it has allowed us to travel through and inhabit; film as short vacation. When this is the case, the plot of the film is almost irrelevant; it becomes an excuse (to be in this place), but also a practical and necessary diversion - a way of arbitrarily defining time, saying 'enough of this place, let's go somewhere else.'

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Narrative fiction engages this ability to explore hypothetical worlds, whether for edification - expanding the number of scenarios whose outcomes can be predicted - or for pleasure - vicariously experiencing love, adulation, exploration, or victory.

A compelling story may simulate juicy gossip about desirable or powerful people, put us in an exciting time or place, tickle our language instincts with well-chosen words, and teach us something new about the entanglements of families, politics, or love.

[Steven Pinker]
The Blank Slate ('The Arts'), p.406

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Balancing Art

Direction implies exclusion, and exclusion means that very many psychic elements that could play their part in life are denied the right to exist because they are incompatible with the general attitude.

The normal man can follow the general trend without injury to himself; but the man who takes to the back streets and alleys because he cannot endure the broad highway will be the first to discover the psychic elements that are waiting to play their part in the life of the collective.

Here the artist's relative lack of adaptation turns out to his advantage; it enables him to follow his own yearnings far from the beaten path, and to discover what it is that would meet the unconscious needs of his age.

Therein lies the social significance of art: it is constantly at work educating the spirit of the age, conjuring up the forms in which the age is most lacking. The unsatisfied yearning of the artist reaches back to the primordial image in the unconscious which is best fitted to compensate the inadequacy and one-sidedness of the present.

Thus, just as the one-sidedness of the individual's conscious attitude is corrected by reaction from the unconscious, so art represents a process of self-regulation in the life of nations and epochs.

[C.G. Jung]
On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry
found in The Norton Anthology: Theory and Criticism
, p.1001-2

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Power of the Archetype

What makes the struggle for adaptation so laborious is the fact that we have constantly to be dealing with individual and atypical situations. So it is not surprising that when an archetypal situation occurs we suddenly feel an extraordinary sense of release, as though transported, or caught up by an overwhelming power.



At such moments we are no longer individuals, but the race; the voice of all mankind resounds in us.

The ideal of the "mother country," for instance, is an obvious allegory of the mother, as is the "fatherland" of the father. Its power to stir us does not derive from the allegory, but from the symbolical value of our native land. The archetype here is the participation mystique of primitive man with the soil on which he dwells, and which contains the spirits of his ancestors.

The impact of an archetype, whether it takes the form of immediate experience or is expressed through the spoken word, stirs us because it summons up a voice that is stronger than our own. Whoever speaks in primordial images speaks with a thousand voices; he enthrals and overpowers, while at the same time he lifts the idea he is seeking to express out of the occasional and the transitory into the realm of the ever-enduring.

[C.G. Jung]
On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry
found in The Norton Anthology: Theory and Criticism
, p.1001

The Appeal of Symbols

A symbol remains a perpetual challenge to our thoughts and feelings. That probably explains why a symbolic work is so stimulating, why it grips us so intensely, but also why it seldom affords us a purely aesthetic enjoyment.

A work that is manifestly not symbolic appeals much more to our aesthetic sensibility because it is complete in itself and fulfils its purpose.

[C.G. Jung]
On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry
found in The Norton Anthology: Theory and Criticism
, p.998

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Vision researchers have suggested [...] that the pleasing visual motifs used in art and decoration exaggerate these patterns, which tell the brain that the visual system is functioning properly and analyzing the world accurately.

Some of the motifs may belong to a search image for the optimal human habitat, a savanna: open grassland dotted with trees and bodies of water and inhabited by animals and flowering fruiting plants.

By the same logic, tonal and rhythmic patterns in music may tap into mechanisms used by the auditory system to organize the world of sound.

[Steven Pinker]
The Blank Slate ('The Arts'), p.405

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A wry demonstration of the universality of basic visual tastes came from a 1993 stunt by two artists, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who used marketing research polls to assess American's taste in art.

They asked respondents about their preferences in colour, subject matter, composition, and style, and found considerable uniformity. People said they liked realistic, smoothly painted landscapes in green and blue containing animals, women, children, and heroic figures.

When the painters replicated the polling in nine other countries [...] they found pretty much the same preferences: an idealized landscape, like the ones on calendars, and only minor substitutions from the American standard.

What is even more interesting is that these McPaintings exemplify the kind of landscape that had been characterized as optimal for our species by researchers in evolutionary aesthetics.

[Steven Pinker]
The Blank Slate ('The Arts'), p.408-9

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Finding Meaning

Instead of investigating its typically human determinants, he will inquire first of all into its meaning, and will concern himself with its determinants only in so far as they enable him to understand it more fully.

Personal causes have as much or as little to do with a work of art as the soil with the plant that springs from it. We can certainly learn to understand some of the plant's peculiarities by getting to know its habitat, and for the botanist this is an important part of his equipment. But nobody will maintain that everything essential has then been discovered about the plant itself.

[...] the special significance of a true work of art resides in the fact that it has escaped from the limitations of the personal and has soared beyond the personal concerns of its creator.

[...] a work of art is not transmitted or derived - it is a creative reorganization of those very conditions to which a causalistic psychology must always reduce it [...] the meaning and individual quality of a work of art inhere within it and not in its extrinsic determinants.

[C.G. Jung]
On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry
found in The Norton Anthology: Theory and Criticism
, p.994

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The Creation of Meaning, pt. 2

Reverence of the Past

[...] putting down the present is a back-handed way of putting down one's rivals: "Competition of praise inclineth to a reverence of antiquity. For men contend with the living, not with the dead."

[Steven Pinker]
The Blank Slate ('The Arts'), p.403

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The Creation of Meaning

The real difference between art and science lies in the specific form in which they give us the same object in quite different ways: art in the form of 'seeing' and 'perceiving' or 'feeling', science in the form of knowledge (in the strict sense, by concepts).

[...] art makes us 'see' 'conclusions without premisses', whereas knowledge makes us penetrate into the mechanism which produces the 'conclusions' out of the 'premisses'.

This is an important distinction, for it enables us to understand that a novel on the 'cult', however profound, may draw attention to its 'lived' effects, but cannot give an understanding of it; it may put the question of the 'cult' on the agenda, but it cannot define the means which will make it possible to remedy these effects.

[...] in order to answer most of the questions posed for us by the existence and specific nature of art, we are forced to produce an adequate (scientific) knowledge of the processes which produce the 'aesthetic effect' of a work of art. In other words, in order to answer the question of the relationship between art and knowledge we must produce a knowledge of art.

[Louis Althusser]
'A Letter on Art in Reply to André Daspre', found in The Norton Anthology: Theory and Criticism, p.1481-2

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A Familiar Story

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However subtly, however difficult to discern, what we believe issues in what we do. Our theories are compasses, if not maps.1
Ah, you believe only houses are constructed? I construct myself continually and I construct you, and you do the same. And the construction lasts as long as the material of our feelings doesn't crumble and as long as the cement of our will lasts. Why do you believe firmness of will is so highly touted, and constancy of feelings? The former has only to waver a little, and the latter has only to be altered by one degree or change ever so slightly, and it's goodbye to our reality! We realize immediately that it was only our delusion.2
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.3
The psyche constructs; it invents images and the mind follows them as its guides; "guiding fictions," Adler calls them.4
We see what our ideas ... allow us to see.5

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This is a story about …


A, B and C are flatmates as well as good friends. For various reasons A and B frequently forget to wash their dishes, meaning that C will often find himself washing up for them. This is a regular and ongoing situation. How should C feel about this, and how should he act? Let’s imagine how the story may progress ...

1. C could have words with A and B and politely ask them to do their own dishes, explaining that it is unfair that he should have to clean up after them.

2. He could indignantly demand that they change their selfish ways, pointing out that it is ridiculous that they should expect him to have to repeatedly wash up their mess.

3. He could take the route of martyrdom and carry on doing their dishes for them, all the while feeling like his good nature is being exploited and building up a slow burning resentment for his two friends.

There are clearly many ways of handling the situation, dependent upon how C chooses to view what is happening to him. This, then, is the crux of the matter; how C views the situation will determine how he reacts to it.
What is your story?

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“The way we imagine our lives is the way we are going to go on living our lives. For the manner in which we tell ourselves about what is going on is the genre through which events become experiences.” 6

C’s view of the situation will arise from whatever story he chooses to tell himself. Let’s look again at the three courses of action offered above. In the first, C tells himself a story in which A, B and himself are all reasonable people, people who are connected through the primary bond of friendship – a bond that is forged upon important notions of respect and equality. In this story, C believes in his friends, and believes that if he gives them a chance, they will do the right thing.

The second story paints a different picture. In it C has, against his will, been shunted into the role of victim, a role that he is not comfortable playing. He has never played this role before and feels that it is not befitting of his character, and he will do all he can to escape this fate. The bond of friendship has been seconded to power relations. C feels that he is being taken advantage of, and his only course of action – his only way to regain power, and an equal footing with his friends - is to fight against this inequality. C becomes the freedom fighter, and all he wants is justice.

The third story once again has C as the victim, only this time it is a role that C feels somewhat more comfortable with. Whilst C loves his friends, he realises that they are only human and that, as such, they are privy to all the weaknesses that befit our kind. He sees these weaknesses as inevitable; an essential component of the bittersweet nature of human relations. In this fantasy C is the martyr, and his suffering is an inescapable part of his lot.

These are just three examples of the many stories that could be told in this situation. We'll consider one final story.
Carry each other

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In each of the examples above, it has been taken for granted that to have to wash up after someone else is to some extent an indignity; a sign of subservience, or of unbalanced power relations. But what if we were to re-frame this act? What if, instead of being a subservient act, it was considered an affectionate one?

What if to wash up after someone else was seen as a privilege – a way of making manifest your affection for the other person?

In this instance, A, B and C are good friends. At its best friendship contains an implicit contract: we carry our friends when they are weak, just as they carry us when we are weak. For this contract to be effective, we must first recognize that we are all imperfect; because if nobody is perfect, then it follows that we all must be carried in some way, and at some time. Through carrying others, we also allow ourselves to be carried.

In practical terms, this carrying could range from arguing on behalf of a friend (the archetype of this form of carrying being the lawyer; that is, someone who argues professionally on your behalf) to providing council in a time of need (the psychotherapist) to literally carrying and taking care of someone because they are injured (the medic). We all carry each other daily, in moments and acts that may often go unseen.

The importance of this idea within society can be seen in its countless repetition within the various stories that have guided us over time; from ancient myth and religious parable, through to the plotlines of various popular films.

To carry those weaker than us is an act of affection that has its roots in love. Yet, whilst it may be easy to love our friends, the dictum to ‘love thy neighbour’ may be a little harder to follow. Psychologist Erich Fromm talks about this distinction;

“… [love] is inseparably connected with the social realm. If love means to have a loving attitude towards everybody, if love is a character trait, it must necessarily exist in one’s relationship not only with one’s family and friends, but towards those with whom one is in contact through one’s work, business, profession. There is no ‘division of labour’ between love for one’s own and love for strangers. On the contrary, the condition for the existence of the former is the existence of the latter.”7

Fromm sees love as an act of faith; in this sense, to love someone – to express faith in one human being - is to express faith in all human beings: to love everyone. It isn’t that you love this person; rather, you simply love. In this way love becomes a capacity, and to be able to love is to be able to love all, not only the beloved. He goes on to contrast this love with the idea of fairness;

“While a great deal of lip service is paid to the religious ideal of love of one’s neighbour, our relations are actually determined, at their best, by the principle of fairness. Fairness meaning not to use fraud and trickery in the exchange of commodities and services, and in the exchange of feelings. ‘I give you as much as you give me’, in material goods as well as in love, is the prevalent ethical maxim in capitalist society.” 8

Fromm suggests that in our relations we may often be guided by an ethics of fairness instead of an ethics based on love. Why is this distinction important? He goes on to say;

“Fairness ethics lend themselves to confusion with the ethics of the Golden Rule. The maxim ‘to do unto others as you would like them to do unto you’ can be interpreted as meaning ‘be fair in your exchange with others’. But actually, it was formulated originally as a more popular version of the Biblical ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’. Indeed, the Jewish-Christian norm of brotherly love is entirely different from fairness ethics. It means to love your neighbour, that is, to feel responsible for and one with him, which fairness ethics means not to feel responsible, and one, but distant and separate; it means to respect the right of your neighbour, but not to love him.” 9

We see then, that to ‘love thy neighbour’ is also to feel responsible for them, not simply to respect their status in a bond based on "fairness". From the feeling of universal responsibility flowers the will to carry.

With this in mind, we’ll return to our story. In this instance, A, B and C are not strangers; they are friends. We’ve already reframed the act of washing a dish – it is no longer a subservient chore, rather it is a way of showing affection, a way of caressing; a concrete act of love that says (if only to go unheard): “I will carry you because I love you.”
A galaxy of ideas

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We’ve seen how a new idea – in this instance reframing the act of washing up dishes - can allow access to different ways of thinking, and can open the page on a new story.

We are all caught within our own webs of meaning, the heroes or victims of the stories that we tell ourselves. If we see the mind as a metropolis, then our city limits are the extent of the tales we currently tell and the meanings that we value. If our vocabulary is limited then we may reside within a town; a constant repetition of familiar places and people – and, indeed, this may be a comfort. For others, the city may stretch for miles, with districts dangerous and unknown. And always we may wonder: what galaxies of meaning lie outside of our own?

The advantage of a new idea is that it allows us access to new areas, and in so doing enables us to enlarge our internal landscape. New ideas can also, as in the story of the dishes, allow us to reframe old ones, giving a different vantage point on a familiar area.

If we believe, as psychologist James Hillman suggests, that we are the “creation of the stories we tell ourselves”10 then it may be worth, every once in a while, reading them through.

Who are we playing?

Have we outgrown this story?

Does it still speak to us?

How did it start?

And how, more importantly, might it end?







Related posts:-
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Endnotes

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1 Adam Phillips. Side Effects, p.77
2 Pirandello, Luigi. One, No One & One Hundred Thousand, p.41
3 Guggenbühl-Craig, Adolf. Power In The Helping Professions, p.47
4 Hillman, James. Healing Fiction, p.104
5 Ibid., p.36
6 Ibid., p.23
7 Fromm, Erich. The Art of Loving, p.101
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid., p.101-2
10 Hillman, James. We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy - And the World's Getting Worse (co-authored with Michael Ventura), p.27
Post-script

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Some more thoughts on carrying


And conversation: we may often betray ourselves when trying to communicate through speech. We often don't have the time to think things through as much as we'd like, and the temporal demands of conversation may not allow for the precaution of an internal proof-reader. With this in mind, we may end up communicating poorly what it is we intend to get across, or even communicating something else entirely.

Carrying in this instance would be a kind of pardoning by the other, a filling-in of your gaps and an active searching for your intentions. In carrying you, they would do their best to understand what it is you are trying to communicate. The opposite would be to purposefully misunderstand or obfuscate your intentions.

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Touch Societies

Sidney Jourard, a University of Florida psychologist, visited cafés in different parts of the world and recorded the number of times two people who were sharing a coffee touched each other. In London, the tally was 0; in Gainesville, Florida, 2; in Paris 110; and in San Juan, Puerto Rico, more than 180.

Most sociologists would agree that societies like those in the Mediterranean countries (Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, for example) are contact societies, whereas the more northern societies in countries such as Holland, Great Britain, and the United States are not.

The physician P. N. K. Heylings wrote an article in the British Medical Journal entitled, "The No Touching Epidemic - an English Disease." The symptoms he describes include feelings of loneliness and isolation, doubts about other people's loyalties, feelings of insecurity, emotional inhibitions, unusual reactions both to being inadvertently touched and to touching others, inability to communicate with people standing nearby, and antagonism to massages as a form of therapy.

Other observational studies to determine the effects of touch on public behavior have been conducted in New England. In one study, shoppers were touched by a salesman offering pizza samples. The customers who were touched were more influenced by the salesperson, they liked that person more, and more of them felt the salesperson liked them more.

[Tiffany Field]
Touch, p.22-4

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Ways of being touched

Many touch therapies go by another name. As Diane Ackerman notes in A Natural History of the Senses, "Touch is so powerful a healer that we go to professional touchers (doctors, hairdressers, masseuses, dance instructors, cosmeticians, barbers, gynecologists, tailors, back manipulators, prostitutes and manicurists) and frequent employers of touch - discotheques, shoeshine stands and mud baths."

It seems that, as our culture places more restrictions on touch within human relationships, alternative forms of touch become more popular. It is as if we needed a minimum of touch for our emotional well-being and physical wellness, so we find acceptable ways, and sometimes functional ways (e.g. going to the hairdresser), of being touched.

[Tiffany Field]
Touch, p.108

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The Shock of the Unintelligible

... when the social contract with reality is abandoned, and literary works no longer speak as though they were reporting fact, hairs start to bristle.

Not the least of the weaknesses of the debate on commitment is that it ignores the effect produced by works whose own formal laws pay no heed to coherent effects. So long as it fails to understand what the shock of the unintelligible can communicate, the whole dispute resembles shadowboxing.

[Theodor Adorno]
On Commitment, Chap. 1, para. 3

Image: I-BE-AREA

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The perils of Radical Subjectivity

"The Struggle" against domination has therefore splintered into micro-struggles extending on so many different planes that there is no need, and in any case no way, to link them all up on a macro-systemic level. So one cultivates "radical" subjectivity through practices that methodologically refuse the big picture ("bad" totality). With audible relief, one relinquishes, as naiveté or will-to-power, the ambition to destroy the structures of exploitation.

Having been a student in the mid-1990s, I can vividly recall how attractive and obvious these ideas seemed. For me and for the artists I knew and worked with then, they appeared more radical and empowering than anything else on offer. It would take some more years of critical work and experience to emerge on the other side of them. Some never did.

The fact is, this reductionist soup is a vulgarization of Foucault-Deleuze-Guattari-Lyotard-Derrida-Baudrillard that represses, precisely, the commitments of these critical theorists. About the real histories and practical contexts in which they struggled, in some cases militantly, one remains sublimely uninformed. Taken out of context and run together into a concoction sloppily called "post-modernism," these distinct bodies of theory and practice are cooked down to some purported basis of post-political ironic relativism.

It follows that, obviously, the old avant-gardes are laughable relics, utterly and irredeemably passé and uncool. Predictably, this kind of thing is often transmitted, in the form of (an) attitude, to students who haven't yet learned or read enough to make minimally critical choices about it and who, as result, will never immerse themselves in avant-garde histories. (Why bother?)

Again, I'm not suggesting that students and artists should slavishly be repeating these histories. The point is that in order to receive and repurpose them, it is necessary to first go through the trouble of learning them.

[Gene Ray]
Art Schools Burning and Other Songs of Love and War, Chap. IV, para. 1-2
Full text here

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In 1958 I wrote the following:

'There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.'

I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?

[Harold Pinter]
Nobel Lecture, 'Art, Truth & Politics'

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