November 2010

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Jaron Lanier

Most of us can recognize people who think like us. It’s the ease we have in following arguments, the familiarity in the way someone moves from one idea to the next. Sometimes it is subtle, but when you share your thinking mother tongue with someone, there is comfort in that shared vernacular.

Most of us can also recognize when we run up against someone who has a completely different way of thinking about the world. I’ve had that sensation of dis-familiarity when I’ve sat with someone suffering from schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s. But I’ve also been exhilarated when I encounter an extremely different way of seeing the world. That’s what I have been feeling from the very beginning of the brilliant and provocative book, You Are Not A Gadget, by Jaron Lanier. A technologist who has been at a the forefront of software design and the Web, Lanier lays open many of the missteps made a long time ago that we have had to adjust to and accommodate. But things didn’t have to be the way they are, and paying attention to those errors is of importance in our decisions going forward.

Lanier describes his book as a manifesto, and in many ways it has the rhetorical power of a political declaration. Chunked into manageable, bite sized passages, You are Not a Gadget is a fistful of extraordinary insights and wisdom that come from a mind that can stand still and drill down 50 feet. He’s got extreme verticality, that’s for sure. And since I’m more horizontally inclined—more adept at covering lots of territory rather than staying in one spot and digging deep—the perspicacity of Lanier’s thinking just keeps coming with every page.

The thing about Lanier is he doesn’t take anything for granted. Everything is scrutinized. One of his key concepts that explains where things have gone wrong is what he calls “lock-in.” Once a software design is formalized and ubiquitous, everything must conform to that structure. Good ideas that don’t fit that particular approach cannot be considered. Lanier offers a number of great examples of this, but the one I particularly like is his discussion of the ubiquitous software concept of the file.

An even deeper locked-in idea is the notion of the file. Once upon a time, not too long ago, plenty of computer scientists thought the idea of the file was not so great.

The first design for something like the World Wide Web, Ted Nelson’s Xanadu, conceived of one giant, global file, for instance. The first iteration of the Macintosh, which never shipped, didn’t have files. instead, the whole of a user’s productivity accumulated in one big structure, sort of like a singular personal web page. Steve Jobs took the Mac project over…and soon files appeared.

UNIX had files; the Mac as it shipped had files; Windows had files. files are not part of life; we teach the idea of a file to computer science students as if it were part of nature. In fact, our conception of files may be more persistent than our ideas about nature. I can imagine that someday physicists might tell us that it is time to stop believing in photons, because they have discovered a better way to think about light—but the file will likely live on.

The file is a set of philosophical ideas made into eternal flesh. The ideas expressed by the file include the notion that human expression comes in severable chunks that can be organized as leaves on an abstract tree—and that the chunks have versions and need to be matched to compatible applications.

That’s from page 13, and so much more follows. The book’s five parts each deal with topics of profound importance:

What is a person?
What will money be?
The unbearable thinness of flatness
Making the best of bits
Future humors

I’m still swimming in this sea of extraordinary ideas and will be for a while. I am sure I will have more comments to make about the book as I continue reading it Until then, here’s a Lanierism to keep a spirit hopeful: “If it’s important to find the edge of mystery, to ponder the things that can’t quite be defined—or rendered into a digital standard—then we will have to perpetually seek out entirely new ideas and objects, abandoning old ones like musical notes.”

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A skin drum, hand made in Morocco and an artifact of extraordinary presence, was lent to me by my friend John Wyrick and now hangs on my studio wall.

Exercise

First, forget what time it is for an hour.
Do it regularly every day.
Then forget what day of the week it is,
and do this regularly in company for a week.
Then forget what country you are in,
and practice doing it in company for a week,
and then do them together for a week
with as few breaks as possible.
Follow these by forgetting how to add
or to subtract.
It makes no difference.
You can change them around after a week.
Both will later help you to forget how to count.

Forget how to count,
starting with your own age,
starting with how to count backwards,
starting with even numbers,
with roman numerals,
starting with fractions,
with the old calendar,
going on to the alphabet,
forgetting it all until everything
is continuous and whole again.

— W. S. Merwin

Reliably provocative, Merwin is a good source for “back to essentials” thinking and feeling. (He is currently the United States Poet Laureate.) Thanks to one of my favorite sites, Blog from a Hermit, for bringing this one into my visibility.

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Sargy Mann, blind painter

Here’s a story I have never encountered before. Sargy Mann spends 25 years as a painter and ends up losing his sight. But he decides to keep painting.

From an article about Mann by Tim Adams in the Guardian:

“After a bit I thought: ‘Well here goes,’ and loaded a brush with ultramarine,” he recalls. “What followed was one of the strangest sensations of my life: I ‘saw’ the canvas turn blue as I put the paint down. Next I put my Schminke magenta, and ‘saw’ it turn rose. The colour sensation didn’t last, it was only there while I was putting the paint down, but it went on happening with different colours…”

He didn’t look back. “Once I had started painting blind, there was no stopping me. It just became the new way of doing it. It was difficult, but art had always been difficult, and having a new set of difficulties was no bad thing.” It was, he thought, a bit like a deaf composer hearing orchestra parts in his head.

Adams’ piece includes some of the research being done by Semir Zeki, a pioneer in “neuroaesthetics” (a word he created) and an authority on how minds, in particular artists’ minds, understand the world. Zeki believes that all great artists are instinctive neruoscientists: “They have an innate understanding of how the brain “sees” the world, and they are fated by this knowledge to constantly try to find a correspondent visual language.” As Zeki points out, seeing is not a passive process.

When we look at a painting, as his sensitive MRI scanning proves, different bits of information are immediately separated and sent to discrete anatomical corners of our brains for processing. Our brains respond to this compartmentalised information at slightly different rates; colour is processed before form, for example, and form before motion. Having been taken apart, as it were, a painting that we love is never simply put back together again in our heads; rather it “exists” dynamically in the interplay between responses of different parts of the brain. That combination of responses can create a puzzling, powerful and lasting engagement with the image, an emotional response.

Mann also shares a quote originally made about poetry, by Philip Larkin, that describes his view of painting: “Painting is a visual device for preserving an experience from oblivion. For me that means making the world look more like itself. Now that is obviously nonsense, because I can no longer see. But I don’t really feel that I have had to abandon any of these thoughts.”

A great thought, and a courageous human being.

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Saul Bellow

Art and meaning. Big topic, and one that just keeps morphing and moving through our relationship with art making in whatever form that takes. I’ve written on that complex topic a lot here, if only peripherally given its depth, but my interest in it is tireless. Leon Wieseltier’s New York Times review of Saul Bellow’s newly published volume of letters touches on it too as well as other salient Bellow insights into life, living and consciousness.

Here are a few passages that jumped out at me:

***
As with his novels, the reading of his letters leaves one amazed by how much Bellow saw. He was always glancing and glimpsing. In a letter to a former student, in 1955, he cautioned her about “American books, including my own” that “pant so after meaning. They are earnestly moral, didactic; they build them ever more stately mansions, and they exhort and plead and refine.” He instructed her, instead, that “a work of art should rest on perception.” In 1957, criticizing a story that Philip Roth had sent him, he scolded the young writer that “I have a thing about Ideas in stories.” And Bellow was just as vigilant about the arrogance of form. To Alfred Kazin, in 1950, he complained about the prevalence of the notion that “to write a story is to manipulate symbols,” and warned against “what happens when literature itself becomes the basis for literature and classics become crushers.” About “The Adventures of Augie March,” he wrote to Bernard Malamud that “a novel, like a letter, should be loose, cover much ground, run swiftly, take risk of mortality and decay…Bellow’s cause was actuality, the whole mess of it. His ideal was wakefulness.

***
He declares, almost creedally, that “the man we bring forth has no richness compared with the man who really exists, thickened, fed and fattened by all the facts about him, all of his history.”

***
This is the sort of drollery that gives evidence of an uncommonly large internal space. “The 19th century drove writers into attics,” he tells Alice Adams. “The 20th shuts them in nutshells. The only remedy is to declare yourself king, or queen, of infinite space.”

***
He informs Barfield that “lately I have become aware, not of illumination itself, but of a kind of illuminated fringe — a peripheral glimpse of a different state of things.”

***
Bellow somehow managed to combine intellectuality and vitality without compromising either of the indispensable terms. The life-force never deserted him, even as it was always attended by interpretation. The unruliness of existence was Bellow’s lasting theme; but while he studied it, he never quite ordered it. In his fiction and in his life, he seemed to believe in the fecundity of disorder.

***
“A language is a spiritual mansion from which no one can evict us,” and in that palace Bellow was sovereign.

***
He never loses his constancy of purpose…“Actually, I’ve never stopped looking for the real thing; and often I find the real thing. To fall into despair is just a high-class way of turning into a dope. I choose to laugh, and laugh at myself no less than at others.”

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Openings


The universe in a blade of grass (…or in a lid left on your work table in the angled light of afternoon)

Here’s more on the theme of looking for and relishing the unexpected, life’s little and big exceptions, those “black swans” that appear out of nowhere (as I wrote about here.) I am also reminded that new friendships qualify as well, those kind where a whole new world opens up, quickly and deeply.

This is the Dream

This is the dream we carry through the world
that something fantastic will happen
that it has to happen
that time will open by itself
that doors shall open by themselves
that the heart will find itself open
that mountain springs will jump up
that the dream will open by itself
that we one early morning
will slip into a harbor
that we have never known.

–Olav H. Hauge
translated by Robert Bly and Robert Hedin

Thanks to Whiskey River for once again offering up a most timely poem.

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It is important to have a secret, a premonition of things unknown. It fills life with something impersonal, a numinosum. A man who has never experienced that has missed something important. He must sense that he lives in a world which in some respects is mysterious; that things happen and can be experienced which remain inexplicable; that not everything which happens can be anticipated. The unexpected and the incredible belong in this world. Only then is life whole. For me the world has from the beginning been infinite and ungraspable.

–Carl Jung

For the last few weeks my view of the world has been shifted significantly by reading The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Written in 2007 but recently released with updated footnotes, the book has been provoking and inspiring shifts in thinking in a variety of disciplines. It has a horizontality that reminds me of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structures of Scientific Revolutions, that landmark book that appeared in 1962 and introduced the brand new concepts of paradigms and paradigm shifts to science, history, sociology, psychology et al.

Taleb’s “Black Swan Events” theory is offered up to explain the following:

1) The disproportionate role of high-impact, hard to predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations
2) The non-computability of the probability of the consequential rare events using scientific methods (owing to their very nature of small probabilities)
3) The psychological biases that make people individually and collectively blind to uncertainty and unaware of the massive role of the rare event in historical affairs.

It’s a great name. There are no black swans in the Northern Hemisphere so whiteness was assumed to be an essential quality of swanness. When a Dutch explorer spotted a black one on an expedition to Australia in 1697, that concept had to be restated. It is a simple but useful analogy for how fragile a system of thought actually can be. Our assumptions, whether they result from reason, logic, falsifiability and/or evidence, can be undone in a moment.

From a review of the book by Will Self:

The Black Swans of the title aren’t simply known unknowns; there are unknown unknowns – events, or inventions, or runaway successes, or indeed contingencies of any kind – for which no statistical analysis, or inductive reasoning can possibly arm us. They are events like 9/11, or Black Monday, or publishing phenomena like the Harry Potter books, or inventions such as the internet, all of which alter the human world.

And from Taleb himself:

Black Swans being unpredictable, we need to adjust to their existence (rather than naively try to predict them.) There are so many things we can do if we focus on antiknowledge, or what we do not know. Among many other benefits, you can set yourself up to collect serendipitous Black Swans (of the positive kind) by maximizing your exposure to them. Indeed, in some domains—such as scientific discovering and venture capital investments—there is a disproportionate payoff from the unknown, since you typically have little to lose and plenty to gain from a rare event…the strategy for the discoverers and entrepreneurs is to rely less on top-down planning and focus on maximum tinkering and recognizing opportunities when they present themselves…The strategy is, then, to tinker as much as possible and try to collect as many Black Swan opportunities as you can.

It is not surprising that a number of venture capitalists have embraced Taleb’s approach as their investment modus operandi. Taleb was a Wall Streeter at one point (don’t hold it against him although he certainly has no shortage of tonal arrogance) so his examples are primarily in the financial/economic realm. But I read this book as an artist’s manifesto, correlating with another variation on the value of tinkering that came up in the conversation between technologists Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson (and written about here.) As Kelly colloquially put it, “to create something great, you need the means to make a lot of really bad crap.” Or as Johnson phrased it, “You need error to open the door to the adjacent possible.”

So tinker away. Be willing to err, to fail, to “set yourself up to collect serendipitous Black Swans.” And Emily Dickinson’s take on the adjacent possible seems right in line with Taleb, Kelly and Johnson:

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

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18th century lacquer work from Quianlong Garden

Currently at the Peabody Essex Museum: The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City, on view through January 9 before it moves to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. This collection of artifacts, never before seen by the public, is taken from a sanctuary built in the Forbidden City. Quianlong Garden was constructed in the 18th century in a remote corner of the massive complex. Closed up for many years, it is now undergoing an extensive renovation.

Among the furnishings (which generally are of less interest to me) there are a few objects that were quite conversant with our modern sensibilities. Some of the lacquer work suggests the fluidity that was so signatory of late 19th century European Art Nouveau (as seen above). And the found rock sculptures (scholar’s stones), long treasured in Chinese culture, feel right at home with the minimalist tradition in contemporary western art.


Charles Sandison’s re-envisioned East India Marine Hall

Other installations worth seeing: First, the East India Marine Hall, part of the museum before it its major facelift a few years ago, is festooned with wooden figureheads from 18th and 19th century seagoing vessels. Artist Charles Sandison has taken the words of ship captains’ logs and turned an otherwise stodgy room into a lively hive of flashing digitalia referencing the trade routes, politics and personalities that led to the founding of the museum in the seaport of Salem. The play of contrast is engaging and fun.


Purgatoire River, by Mark Ruwedel (Photo: PEM)

Second, unforgettable photographs by Mark Ruwedel. “Imprint” features the tracks of both humans and dinosaurs in remote locations throughout the western US. The photographs make no reference to human life, just the trails that were worn into the stone or desert surface by our ancestors in prehistoric times. The silence and stillness in this body of work is extraordinary. (I wrote about Ruwedel’s show in more detail a few months back here.)

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Barnett Newman

I’ve been having a lot of discussions lately about irony, particularly its role in art. Many of these are conversations I have been having with parts of myself, but some of them are with friends and cotravelers. This interest was piqued a few weeks ago when a good friend with an exceptionally developed sense of art and its history commented to me about my work with this: “There’s no irony. No appropriation. No erasing of boundaries between high and low. No entertaining riffs and slights-of-hand. Which is okay with me, but how do you feel about it?”

How do I feel about it? I’m still pondering that last query but clear that the absence of irony is intentional. When I mentioned this issue to another friend, her response was, “Maybe you should strive to live your life irony-free, like your paintings!” Yet another way to think about it. Irony is a concept so complex and layered that its many permutations can keep the mind occupied for a long time and never come to a final position.

In a review of the Abstract Expressionism in New York show at the MOMA that appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, artist and writer Shane McAdams drew some generational distinctions that I found useful, particularly in the context of irony:

I grew up in a generation that would view claims of painting’s or New York’s supremacy as somewhat chauvinistic and confrontational. Our way has been more polite, less opinionated, and more circumspect, opting for the more slippery strategies of relativity and irony to make our points. The tendency has favored not being wrong over being right. If irony is to state one thing and to mean another, our generation has carved an entire worldview out of not actually meaning anything. This is the legacy of Andy Warhol, the high priest of cool detachment. So it’s not such a leap for the children of Warhol to assume that those AbExers were playing fast and loose with meaning as well, when in fact they meant every word they said.

***
While viewing AbExNY, I noticed that at least half the spectators were experiencing the paintings through a camera viewfinder, snapping digital photos, saving the experience for later. The younger the viewer, the less likely they were to engage the work directly. Jackson Pollock mediated through an LCD screen seems an apt metaphor for generational detachment given his determination to dissolve the barriers between him and his painting, the exterior and interior universe: “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing,” he declared in 1948. We want distance from the world and our consciousness; Pollock didn’t.

A younger generation of artists who want “distance from the world and our consciousness” do live their lives in stark contrast to the heady AbExers in the late 40s. A pendulum swing or a trend that was just moving through? Who is to say for sure. But I do like McAdams’ move to a larger arc of concern with this closing thought: “When the world looks like it’s falling apart, though, perhaps ironic detachment will begin to look less like an antidote to chauvinism and more like a banal evil, unequipped to fight the pricks of history.”

No answers, and maybe there is no need to look for any. But plenty to ponder.

And thanks to Carl Belz for linking me to McAdams’ review.

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Ad for L. L. Bean, back in the day (1941) Photo: George Strock/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

“I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.” — Raymond Chandler

This is the tag line from poet Heather Bell’s blog, There Are Many Things In This World That You Must Do Alone. One of the best mastheads ever.

BTW, Heather has published another volume of poems, Expletive Deleted. More information for purchasing it on Anhinga. (A memorable poem by Heather is posted here.)

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Agnes Martin. Her wisdom and point of view has stepped in and shifted my thinking many times over the years. This week I happened upon an interview with her, and it was like a Heimlich maneuver dislodging a blockage. She is so unabashedly mystical. Some say that she didn’t read a newspaper for the last 50 years of her life. Given her world view, it seems to me that there really wasn’t much need.

She reminds me of my favorite monk who lives in near isolation in Gotsang, a meditation monastery in Ladakh. He has been there for 45 years. We sat with him for most of a day when I was there two years ago. Even with a language barrier it was clear to all of us that he knew so much more about the flinty core of consciousness than any of us ever would. Just sitting with him, something in me shifted.


A furtive photo of the back of the monk at the monastery in Gotsang, Ladakh

Two backs to the world…

A few highlights from the interview with Agnes Martin:

In this world, that’s the only thing you need to know: What you want.

I paint with my back to the world.

Best things in life happen to you when you are alone. All revelations.

What am I going to do next? That’s how I ask for inspiration.

I have a vacant mind in order to do exactly what the inspiration calls for.

That’s the trouble with art today. 50 ideas before you start, and the inspiration disappears.

Art is responded to with emotion. The best art is music, the highest form of art, completely abstract.

Art is not intellectual at all.

You can’t think about beating the rest of them while you are painting. You have to keep a clear picture in your mind.

Don’t let any other thoughts in. The worst thing you can think about while you are painting is yourself.

I wait 3 days before I decide about a painting being done.

I used to meditate til I learned to stop thinking.

Now, empty mind. When something comes in, you can see it.

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