Pushing Past Futility
I've always had a poor tolerance for futility. Faced with a task I sense is futile, I'm like a cat with a sock on its back. I just collapse under the weight of absurdity.
This has rarely made me popular. The war of attrition waged by this on friendships forged under the sunny skies of my "good-nature" have cost me dearly. No-one wants to be told there are binds, boundaries, and seemingly hopeless pitfalls to be dealt with to avoid these traps of futility.
The hardest thing for me to get across is that avoiding futility is a necessary first step to effective action. That getting caught up in motions we sense are fruitless from the start only keep us from finding paths towards whatever an honest hope can accomplish. We sacrifice ourselves to futility and participate in our co-option all in one swoop. The alternative is hard, but the process is liberating once we get past the initial fears that hold us this side of trying.
I've put a lot of effort into puzzling out this dynamic. I can't think of a better way to collect meaning and work towards the slim possibility of somehow helping us change our course.
As a designer, I was always frustrated by how impatient people are to get on with it! To be doing something even before there is any clear idea what might be useful.
As an artist, I've long practiced just getting on with it! It's what I'm doing right now, writing to find what I think, instead of writing to expostulate previously arrived at positions.
There's no real ambiguity or paradox involved in reconciling these two attitudes. The key to both is in how we look at framework and schema. What I look for as a designer is the framing question that allows planning to take place. A question that will help direct action towards the touching point. As an artist; including as an artistic designer, as opposed to an engineer; I "just do it!" so as to allow the non-linear parts of my being to get into the act.
We've seen a longstanding dichotomy between making and finding. As Richard Shiff in his Cézanne and the End of Impressionism puts it, there are "spontaneous finders," and "premeditative makers." This was part of the turn of the Twentieth Century discussion on authenticity and originality, the range of expression from Romantic to Classicist, from avante-guarde to academic. These assumptions are widely held and permeate all modern thought in one form or another.
What if we do both? Not serially, cycling between one way of seeing action and then the other, but simultaneously, at least within a process that binds these two viewpoints into a larger whole that doesn't recognize the distinction?
Wooden Boatbuilding was my entry into this way of making and finding. The task is so ambitious and the means so modest that its traditions have held onto attitudes about making that predate the compartmentalization between thinkers and doers. I also used this process making furniture. Creating a counter/end-board out of two matched planks from a Walnut Tree that had been cut in the 1940s and that came to me wonderfully seasoned and "antiqued" with a touch of spalting, worm holes perforating their butt-ends. The challenge was to make the entire piece, except for some internal "secondary wood," from these boards; to create an organic whole of a certain complexity within severe limitations.
What I did, this is not to say it couldn't have been done any other way, was to do some basic calculations to size the piece so it was theoretically possible and then to proceed. Each cut and each assignment of a piece of wood to its place was an act of faith and a move in an ongoing, unfolding, emergent process. Behind it all was a vague sense that I was avoiding futility by undertaking this challenge as it was about much more than just fulfilling the task at hand. As with most everything that has kept my attention this wasn't motivated by payment or any external reward. It furthered my quest. I "knew" this without "knowing," as has been true in most cases. The confirmation only coming much later when reflection and hindsight have had time to work.
Authenticity, authority, originality, sincerity, naiveté, and genuine expression; these are questions that go way beyond matters of art historical interest. Art, and discussion about art, may derive most of their importance from the way they give us an arena in which to work with these concepts. So much of the popular opinion that art has gone off the rails in the last century has come from a blend of astute and hair-brained assessments of the way the art establishment has appeared to have left these concepts behind. This in itself is a result of the collapse of our assumptions and the institutions that embody them as our over-reach has proceeded towards its tipping point.
At different points in my life I've collected the nickname, The Professor. It's usually meant in good fun, but it does reflect the resistance I attract when I get all didactic! In the War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells sends our hero into the clutches of a "Man of Action" who turns out to be forever caught up in unrolling more and more elaborate plans for ultimate "victory" against the Martian Invaders. He's a wonderful send-up and warning against this particular blend of traits. I beg to claim I'm not one of those! In fact my struggle against futility has been a struggle to keep out of the clutches of this attitude.
The "Gallant Six Hundred" galloping "onward into the valley of death" are a model that's relatively easy to avoid emulating in the futility of their sacrifice. This other type's appeal is more insidious. It hides behind a bluff of imminent action, while remaining trapped in the hypnotic solace of a fairy-tale in all its glorious and spurious detail. Wells, living at the point – as were Picasso and Braque – when the Modernist Moment was on the brink of passing from awesome potential to tragic lost opportunity. As the clarity of vision available to a few on the brink of World War I was crushed by the war and its aftermath. Wells has our ultimate deliverance come not through direct attack, or by the pious machinations of the devout, but through the serendipitous emergence of the living earth defending itself by its own unknowable and unexpected means.
That such an eventuality resonates with us today, just shows how far-reaching sight can be at times. The point here though is that there is a distinction to be made between endless planning and the effort to sidestep futility. This latter is so often thrown into the catch-all of "defeatist" behaviors. It's so hard to get people to distinguish between the two. An older language dealing with the mystery of deliverance used the term Providence. The trouble with this language today is how it was taken over by the Puritans and their descendants and how it has degenerated into a form of spiritual "insurance policy," the knack of gaining a personal savior to hold in our pockets to clear away all difficulty so that the fruits of our will – conveniently stated as His Will – will be done. How do we rescue the underlying kernel Wells is pointing at?
The key is in our perspective. So long as we are placing will, under whatever guise, in the "driver's seat" we are trapped in the fantasy of the will-to-control. This leads to all these varied machinations as we try to dress up selfish egotistical behavior as expressions of Divine Providence or the Invisible Hand. If we embed ourselves into the Plenitude of Being and take our satisfactions from taking part in the awesome fact of existence, then we can relinquish control and take part in an ongoing process that works through its own means to maintain the possibility of its continuation.
Look at any "natural" thing. Natural not Natural™. It is complex and nuanced and embedded in a fractal organization across all scales and relationships with every other part of existence. Then look at any of our productions. They are a violence done to this connectedness. They are simple to the point of simplistic, and they rend the fabric of existence so as to generate a chaos that is qualitatively different from any other in nature. A war is not a storm. A radioactive incident is not like an asteroid impact or a volcanic eruption. An offshore wind-farm or a suburban development are not like a line of combing breakers or a colony of flamingos. In their willfulness and rigid patterning they tear at the very fractal nature of existence. Willful acts done by conscious beings break existence in a qualitatively different way from any natural disturbance or concentration.
Not all human activity is equally destructive. This is where the guidance our instinct for avoiding futility comes to bear. Our destructive acts demand that we succumb to the depths of an awful sense of futility. Mobilizing for war is predominantly an effort to surrender our relationships to life and immerse ourselves in profound futility. That's what's behind fevers of bravado. It's what forms the basis of our struggles with the aftermath of war; our guilt, our grief at all that was sacrificed. It's behind the drive to deny all that in the name of burying this shame. Our creative acts; those which truly tap into making and finding and expressing our awe and joy, our acceptance of our part as profoundly vulnerable beings that are never-the-less capable of kindness; partake of a fractal structure to some extent. They fit in without doing the kind of extinction-generating violence our other actions bring us to.
If this is true, then this drive to avoid futility is one of our great guides. It deserves much more attention than it gets in our current frameworks where so much effort goes into its suppression. Jung's own E=MC2 equation,
“…when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate.”
This formulation leads us back to how we suffer from what we wish to deny precisely because we try to deny it! This delineates the central part futility plays in shaping our course. This implies how important it is that we push past futility, not because it is sad, or depressing; but because our rightful abhorrence of its presence is a warning we can't afford to ignore.