A Ramble at the Year's End
We invest so much into creating and promulgating the notion of blank slates.
In the face of the Plenitude of Being we put our effort into pushing it away and abstracting some provisional sense of blankness onto which we proceed to make our “mark.” I’m doing this right now as I scratch letters on a clean, ruled page.
Think how far this extends. It is mind-boggling, everything from enclosing ourselves inside structures with six flat surfaces instead of the infinitely fractal geometry of the outer world. We abstract linear space/time out of an ocean of time and space enveloping us – its not simply a railroad track on which we perch ourselves uncomfortably waiting for trouble to run us over.
Every category, every distinction, every attempt to hold, control, master or even simply to understand; sits upon the act of abstracting a blankness onto the Plenitude. We insist this must be! How else can we survive? How else can we get “traction” on reality and steer a course?
This realization is correct, as far as it goes. It focuses on the How, while it eliminates the possibility of experiencing Why. It continually feeds itself, it feeds us into its insatiable maw. At this point, with how many billions of us chasing at all levels to obliterate anything we cannot possess, this impulse has become a greater danger to us than the “harsh,” external realities we call our abstracting powers to protect ourselves from.
A slipper has a certain traction. A tank or a bulldozer has traction to the nth power. What is the trade-off? The affect on the world one has while passing through it. We see this, regretting it as we find no alternative, whether on a battlefield or the mangled wasteland of a land-fill; but these are only the grossest manifestations of our choice to see the world this way. They grow out of an inherent “landscape” of abstraction, our impulse to generate the blank slate.
“In the beginning there was the Word.” Well, that’s not true, but it can be seen as an early statement of what we’re looking at. At a time/place when people lived immersed, here was a call to wipe that all aside and claim supremacy for an abstraction.
Abstraction, there’s a term, like so many others, blurred, debased, barely understood today. It’s not an artistic movement, or moment, now supplanted. In fact, I’d like to say that some of what is called abstraction in art has been part of a desire to reclaim an oceanic nature of existence – while other aspects have been on the front-line of the obliteration of that awareness. Behind the term’s use as a label is its nature – labels can be sloppy and miss-applied, or used ironically.
My impulse to write just now came from an insight on abstraction, particularly painterly abstraction, the kind of abstract painting I’ve practiced which is non-minimalizing, that struggles with engagement and with the oceanic. It is accretionist and does not accept narrowing limitations on how it should be perceived. It plays with its “frame” and at times it incorporates the found.
My thought was, "Why start with a blank sheet at all?" If there is an entry into an interaction with Plenitude, an arena for exploring phenomena, engagement, immersion, then why start with a blank? The blank is a lie, a negation that is most dangerous because of the way it is combined with its customary easy acceptance and the immense, though hidden – at a remove – violence it generates.
This inquiry touches peripherally, maybe more than that, on the question of the virtual. The virtual as it is embodied today within the digital. Again, this is an immensity. The virtual has become a multitude of pathways that have given our bodies partial access to the immaterial. Within the virtual there is the potential to “visit” whatever can be imagined. Imagined, here being tied, perhaps inextricably, to the blank.
All virtuality is by definition and embodiment of the digital. The 0 – 1 is the ultimate in accepting the blank. On top of this is the limited interface, akin to meddling inside an aquarium wearing rubber gloves inserted below the glass. We have “experiences” in virtual reality whether in a simulation, or “constructing” within a virtual Euclidean space, or even “interacting” with either Artificial Intelligence or other humans across a network. We can see what is happening, we can feel our responses, we can even intuit broader reactions – we “animate” our responses with “felt” internalizations.
Within the scope of all mediated experience, this can appear to be quite high on the scale of immediacy and immersion. This comes about through an illusion, the draping of our expectations, expectations based on actual experiences of analogous circumstances, that we superimpose over the severely restricted actuality of our virtual interactions. – What this means for people who increasingly have very limited actual experiences, and therefore a stunted imagination to take into the virtual, that’s a whole topic in itself.
This affect of seeming immersion appears to be self-limiting. It is highest when the extent of the limitations of the particular virtual sphere we are engaging is still relatively unexplored, and it drops-off as we learn the limits and our subjective “enrichments” are stripped away by our repeated encounters with this realms lack of Plenitude.
We seek to overcome this drop-off in our enthusiasm to engage by looking for ever deeper immersions in ever more capacious virtualities. The joke is that at some point we are able to fit all of Plenitude into our virtually created experiences at which point we inhabit a matrix that is indistinguishable from “real life.” Truth intervenes in this wishful scenario as it does in all others. The closest we can come to this is in a race, a race in which we strip our real lives of all their Plenitude so that it becomes indistinguishable from a matrix built upon binary 0 – 1; a “Blankitude.” This scenario touches upon the dark side of the virtual, dark indeed, although self-limiting also in the long-term since it relies on our ability to continue to turn fossilized sunlight into pulses of current and support the entire infrastructure for the creation and maintenance of a culture based on hiding in the virtual while destroying the actual to support our habit.
On the bright side, the ability to attach concrete, embodied experiences to conceptually based pseudo-events has opened up a new meta-pathway, a new way for us to metabolize, internalize things that could only be approached conceptually before, either intellectually, or imaginatively; but only “in here” not in any recognizable “out there.”
This capability has made it easier to have some form of experience of things that otherwise we were locked out of. Before, we had mathematical, conceptual models that a handful of savants could imaginatively inhabit. They could “hold” in their heads rather complex dynamics and place experiences of them within themselves that way. Dynamics that involved telescoping time – watching events unfold in a foreshortened chronology, or putting oneself in Euclidean “spaces” that modeled some aspect of the world or an imaginary place.
Our pseudo-experiences within the virtual realm let us embody encounters with meta-realms. These experiences can lead to a greater ease and ability to “move” about within concepts, from an internalized “inside” with a “concrete” embodiment that was out of reach before. For myself, my experiences in “modeling in 3-d space” and of “flying” in aircraft simulations have given me experiences of things that could exist and scenarios that were otherwise beyond my reach and gave me a body of experience I could not have achieved so quickly, so precisely, and so effortlessly before. I “know” what a boat that has never been built will look like from any angle and have quite detailed parametrics of its potential behavior. I “know” what its like to handle a range of aircraft in a range of situations in a range of places. Besides the rather amorphous “ownership” I have of these pseudo-experiences, they have helped me design boats and made it possible for me to “inhabit” the imaginative space of a pilot while working on developing an avionics system. Many of us have similar real world results derived from virtual experiences.
We are in a broadly analogous dynamic when we navigate within networked environments, whether inside virtual worlds – of “Warcraft” or not – and within social networking interfaces intended to reach out and make contact with others more directly. I’m doing this right now, writing this as a blog, having a sense of interaction with people I’ve never seen.
We slip into a realm that seems analogous to earlier, non-digital, non-virtual interactive experiences. We wrote letters. We corresponded. We wrote or read books. We talked on the telephone. We shared photographs and motion pictures. Neal Young always said, “digital will never replace analog.” While he was referring to a specific of musical reproduction, it is true in all experience, I think he was getting at that too. Our previous experiences of social communication “at a distance” across time-space were less mediated. Not unmediated, that example of the effect of “The Word” exploding the immersive “Eden” it ejected us from; but our engagement with a book or a photo, or an analog phone call, was so narrowly mediated that its boundaries within the Plenitude were so clear – once we had millennia of experience with these mediums – that we rarely ever felt so immersed in them as to be distracted from our actual immersion in reality. Even the experience of the telephone has undergone that kind of shift. Sitting at a desk, or standing in front of a wall-phone was not the same experience as walking or driving while talking on a cell-phone. This difference is emblematic of a qualitative shift in experience.
This is a ramble. It has also taken me past the year’s end and well into the first week of the new year, this new decade. This is a difficult time, a time of regeneration, of new energy feeding in at the passing of the contraction that ends December 21, and finally seems to take hold in early January. – I don’t know how this must feel in the southern hemisphere, how can the summer equinox really be felt as the end of anything; but a capricious mirroring of experiences in the north. – This is a difficult time as any time of abundance is difficult. It comes after a fallow period, a contraction, and it has the potential of great harvest. IF, we can capture its output, and not let it fall aside and rot where it lies.
The only response is to take a deep breath and accept that some will be reaped, and some will be wasted; but acceptance establishes the possibility that good can be done, where fear, annoyance, anger all thwart the process and lead to greater harm.
On the subject of fear, and the anger it engenders, it is time to stand up to the panic and its instigators; not with anger in return, but perhaps scorn? The way to deal with those who have power but no sense of how to use it well; of those who through their squandered talents and wasted abilities have lost any traction with the real world and put all their energy into maintaining lies; is to recognize their irrelevance.
There is nothing to be missed ignoring the irrelevant. There is much to be missed by continuing to let them dominate our attention. The greatest danger they expose us to is their distraction. Their greatest power comes from our continued attention. Their Will to control has led them to an ever greater incompetence. The more they wish to control the less power they have. We master our own attention, even in extremis, it’s up to us to put our thoughts, our feelings, our awareness where we want it to be, not where someone demands it. Let’s hope we can work on that. A fleeting glimmer of their profound irrelevance underlies this gasp of panic they feel and wish us all to share in. We can take this as a positive sign. A Shoal Hope indeed.