Herein you will find samples of some of Genese Grill's essays, translations, musings, images, and interdisciplinary Symphilosophieren on questions of meaning, matter, spirit, art, utopia, possibility, literature, and life.
Since I am having a show (opening at Green Tara Gallery in North Hero, Vermont on August 31st, 5-8), I have rallied to finish the Almandal Grimoire Book Portal. It really could be worked on for ever, each unsatisfactory page redone (I have redone a few), each letter gone over again and again, but long ago (I have been working on it for five years) I realized that if it was to be done at all, it needed to be done now, with whatever I happen to have in me. It would not be Ideal, but Real.
Here are some images from the continuing creation:
I am also working on a small version, which can be held in the hand and purchased. More later.
At a secret sacred summit over red tea in a corner of the special tea room, we established (once again) some ritual practices for approaching the almost impossible: for translating the vision in our heads and hearts into particular words in particular orders. My friend was waving his hands around in the air, describing the seemingly infinite arcs of the 7 different worlds he was carrying in his brain and the intense desire to recapture and pin down these visions before time ran out. There were books to read and languages to learn, histories to grapple with, science and metaphysics, not to mention sleep and care of the body and one's local surroundings. He sees practically no one, which would seem to help in cutting out distractions and concentrating the mind; I, on the other hand, am inundated with social distractions and excuses for not working (especially these last months when I sacrificed my writing almost altogether for local politics), but now I am trying to eliminate as many of these as possible, returning to my old standby of no appointments before 3 or 4 in the afternoon. The mornings entirely devoted to work. But that is easier said than done, because here I am, with my notes and my notebooks, my pens and my cup of coffee (tea sometimes, coffee today, because my lovely housemates left me some in a nice steaming pot on the counter), and I don't know how to begin.
So I am trying to remember what we said over tea the other day. I was telling him that I did not really think he could force himself to have the visions again, and I blurted out--rather rudely perhaps--that he was controlling. I only said it because I am too. I was remembering Proust's theory of involuntary memory. Proust insisted that you could not make the memories come. Correspondences between two separate things would spark memories and spark writing, but you could not artificially create such a moment. We talked about the proverbial need to be in "the flow" and I suggested that it had something to do with a sort of tight rope strung taut but loose at the same time...that the mind had to be loosely focused, to allow ideas to come from the subconscious, but also we had to be present and awake to capture them when they appeared. I know that when translating I can sometimes find the right word before I know why it is correct. It might also be akin to the way great musicians and athletes do their thing without thinking, after years of training, and a certain ability to be present without grasping too hard.
Then I remembered being hypnotized. It was not a deep trance, but enough to just disable a certain rational part of my brain. I was asked questions and images appeared to me. If I had been in my normal state, I would have dismissed them as irrelevant to the question. In fact, images and ideas flow through our minds all the time, but because we are looking for something else, because we have our conscious minds clamped firmly on something we are searching for or that we expect to appear, we ignore these seemingly extraneous gifts. Under hypnosis, instead of pushing the seemingly stray images away, I gave them credence, I let them rise. And when I looked at them, loosely but with a certain focus, they were immensely fruitful, bursting and bursting with significance and fascination.
So we determined we must show up, be present, without trying too hard to control what happened. We must be open and loose, but also focused. It sounds simple enough, but then my friend said, "But I can always sabotage myself". Ah, yes, of course. And so can I. I took a sip of tea, the last dregs, chewing on a loose tea leaf, and said to us both, "Well, sure, you can, we are experts at self sabotage. But enough of that".
Yes, we laughed. We have sabotaged ourselves for years and years. It is getting boring by now, isn't it? Let's get out of our own way and let the work happen.
Following the recent Public Hearing on Burlington’s downtown zoning change, after various factions had gone off to compare notes, nurse wounds, and celebrate what each was claiming as victory, I ran into a City Councilor and another vociferous “multi-use-mall-housing-office-parking garage-structure” supporter, who suggested that all sides should keep partying. I demurred, saying I had too much work to do, fighting city hall. The Councilor surprised me by quoting Emma Goldman’s line, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be a part of your revolution”. It was not that I couldn’t imagine him dancing (I am sure he can cut a good rug), but that I found it incongruous that a man who had recently called some community organizers in Burlington “N.I.M.B.Y.” (Not in My Back Yard) “attack dogs” chose to quote the words of a notorious anarchist agitator―with apparent approbation. What would he be calling Emma if she were a contemporary concerned citizen of Burlington?! It also made me wonder about the tensions between pleasure and politics and the terrible tendency politics has of being no fun. Abbie Hoffman, the great yippy agent provocateurwho endeavored to levitate the Pentagon and ran a pig for president, knew well how to transcend partisan dogmatism and make politics a party. Most of the time, however, politicians and activists vie with each other to present the worst possible sour faces, squeezing out a well-orchestrated sob for the poor and disenfranchised when necessary, and deploring, castigating, warning, threatening, doomsday-saying, till the cows come home―as if she who is most morally outraged on behalf of others, most piously selfless, is by right the one whose cause is most just. As if she who would willingly have a mote in her own eye or an eyesore in her own backyard were the finest shining example of citizenship.
It occurred to me further, after hearing the Burlington Mayor stigmatize those who were against creating a completely out-of-character zoning in the town center as people who were against equality and affordable housing, how easy it is, in Hamlet’s words, to “smile, and smile, and be a villain”—just as long as you claim you are helping to feed the hungry and house the homeless by doing so. Building high-rise luxury multi-use mall-office tower-monstrosities with three floors of above-ground parking garages and 80 units of expensive student housing and a very small percentage of affordable housing is, apparently, now a campaign to help “the poor and disenfranchised”. I really might respect Mayor Weinberger more if he would just admit that it gives him pleasure to help developers like himself make money and cleanse the town of riff-raff and impecunious artists and hardly-working troublemakers. Instead, he plays pious. Those against the project also—with greater validity—have used the minimalaffordable housing as a justification for not wanting the zoning to go through. Presumably, if we only talked about the views that would be lost, or the ugliness of the structure, or the added traffic that would make our lives less enjoyable, we would be considered N.I.M.B.Y’.s, and our concerns would not be respected as much. But the dichotomy, as the dichotomy between beauty and justice, is a false one. We don’t have to choose between acting in an ethical manner and fostering lives of pleasure and happiness—for ourselves and others.
The environment can also be manipulated as a free ticket to do atrocious things. Worrying about the ozone layer gets you more sympathy than complaining about the inconvenience and stress of traffic. In this case, the Mayor has made the disingenuous claim that a huge development, which would put excessive strain on the lake and increase carbon emissions, is the only way we could now require LEED certification, a new storm water runoff system, and to use the McNeil Power Plant for a district energy system that has been clamoring for attention for years—until he suddenly realized that opportunistically promoting it seemed like a good opportunity to sell an unpopular project to the people. Of course we can do all of these ecologically smart things without approving this new zoning change. Those against the project have counted—again, more rightly—their environmental concerns as points for their side, citing the threats to an already-ailing lake, the need for urban green spaces, and a need for a reduction of cars in the city. But if we were to defend the environment only because it is beautiful and pleasurable to experience, we would surely be called selfish N.I.M.B.Y’.s concerned with our lake views. And yet the whole city is the back yard of everyone who lives here.
The environment can be used as a moral cause because it is suffering greatly from human selfishness, because it is fundamental to our physical health, and because it is fundamentally useful (we need it to breathe, for medicines, for food). But what if it were not necessary for our continued existence on the planet? Would a call to save the endangered redwoods or the monarch butterflies be considered merely frivolous? Probably. It seems that our administration really does have a hard time letting beauty just be beauty without putting it toward some practical or personal use. Recently, a lovely patch of the bike path which used to be wild and weedy has been transformed into a paved-over work-out center with contraptions for joggers to stretch and tone themselves along the trail. How convenient. How useful. How utterly ugly.
Does this work-out pavement help the poor and disenfranchised? No. Does it decrease the permeable surface which soaks up toxins on their way to the lake? Yes. Not good for the poor, and not good for the eco-system. And not even pleasurable! A paved exercise area may be theoretically in service to personal physical attractiveness or fitness (which others may enjoy by looking), but at what cost to the beauty of the surrounding environment? To human enjoyment of undeveloped, wild nature? But pain trumps pleasure. A sweating jogger can claim that he is aching from all those self-flagellating miles. If a poet misses the field of flowers, well, that’s merely something more for her to lament about in the next ode. But neither can claim that their suffering in response to this new paved fitness area will help the poor and disenfranchised, those who are unable to run due to old age or infirmity, or those who do not understand poems. The moral posture of helping others by suffering some personal sacrifice is reserved for the hypocritical apologist for bad development who is happy to have an ugly building with a 24-hour fluorescently-lit garage built right next door to his lakefront home. He piously pretends that the presence of these “lofts” lowers rent prices (which it doesn’t). This fortress of “wealthy living” is neither healthy nor socially beneficial to the underprivileged. Perhaps he just gets a perverse pleasure out of making the world uglier because beauty somehow discomforts him.
But why is hypocritical, self-sacrificing suffering such a popular position in political debates? Why should it bear more weight than the tastes and preferences of a self-interested individual who gathers together with other neighbors to protect their view or to limit traffic on their street, or to define, in any way, the boundaries of their small community according to their own interests—aesthetic, practical, or otherwise? Nietzsche and Wilde, following Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, questioned the concept of “disinterested” criticism in the 19thcentury, arguing that humans are always interested, always subjective; our judgments are always colored by our tastes and our lives. This interestedness, however, was not seen as a bad thing, but as a meaningful force, a source from which pleasure fountains forth. Of course, if we considered only ourselves we would not experience much pleasure in either personal or political life. All of our considerations of self-interest must needs consider that we live in the world with others whom we affect and whose lives and interests concern us greatly. We can assuredly be both other-directed and self-interested at once, just as long as we don’t insist on our “right” to do just any old reckless thing without acknowledging that our own happiness is contingent on the harmony of the neighborhood.
Kant defined ethics as other-directed action, while insisting upon the basic subjective lens of the individual agent. And this is the seeming paradox of existential action: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will it to be a general rule” (the categorical imperative) is not that different from “Do unto others…”. That is, an existentialist who is a N.I.M.B.Y. not only doesn’t want a bad development in his own back yard, but doesn’t want that bad development anywhere else either.
N.I. A. B.Y.―Not in Anyone’s Backyard.But the Nay-Saying must begin wherever we live.If we don’t say no to bad things in our own back yard, where will we say no to them? And we hope that others, elsewhere, will also say no to things in their back yards that we would deem harmful here. Their success in determining their own communities will inspire us to better cultivate our own gardens at home.
And even though Kant probably did not dance, and may have had precious little pleasure in his highly regimented scholarly life, somehow there is a connection—through Nietzsche and Wilde—to Emma Goldman’s dancing revolution. True revolutions begin and prosper from a source of personal pleasure (not just against the pain of others), within small communities of people who love and argue with each other, who care about both their built and natural environments, their neighborhoods and traditions; and who work together to protect these things from powerful external forces which impinge on their own home-grown interests, tastes, and sense of ethical community-building. Community groups (“N.I.M.B.Y. attack dogs”) fight outside interests off so that they can win the time and freedom to envision and manifest new ways of living and interacting with each other from back yard to back yard, as existential models of universal resistance and creativity. If we forget what it is we are fighting to preserve—something we might well define as a beautiful, meaningful life—we have already lost.
Well, Just in case anyone wonders.....
I have been doing different kinds of work over the last six months. It is creative in its own way, and frustrating like creative work, exhilarating like creative work, exhausting like creative work...but doesn't feed me in the same way. Local politics has taken me over, as I battle with a growing group of Burlington residents to fight the incursions of the real estate industrial complex and a collusive city government engaged in selling off our city, destroying our community-driven zoning and planning, deregulating development, and undermining democratic processes. You can see some of this activity on this other blog: www.CLCburlington.org. It is the same thing that is happening everywhere, but we are fighting back hard here, with some good old fashioned Vermont grass roots tactics and chaotic non-partisan energy. And we appear to be winning for now, having gotten a nasty zoning change on the November ballot. If we can muster the populace to vote in their own interests, we will vote down the zoning change and show the City and their developer friends who is boss! Shaping one's city and world is a creative, collaborative process, but very difficult, since there are powerful, monied forces working to shape it in opposite ways at the same time. It is a shame that so much of our creative, world-shaping energy is defensive rather than truly generative!
Once that is over, November 9th, I will be returning to my other Work. The work of writing and painting and thinking. There has been some of that, but precious little, over the last six months. Here are two photos of me and my giant book, taken by April Patterson at the Art Hop in early September (last time I was in my studio! Ah).
Also, in the meantime, my essay on conceptual art and re-materialization has been published in The Georgia Review, Fall issue, and my Almandal Grimoire essay was a runner up for the Best AmericanEssays 2016 volume, edited by Jonathan Franzen. Another essay, Making Meaning II: Italian Journeys, will be in Numero Cinq this month. While I was fallow, the seeds were sprouting? In any case, I promise myself I will put aside worldly things come November 9th, and I hope to be sharing some more words and images here soon.
The May issue of Numero Cinq will include a new essay of mine, entitled "Making Meaning I: The Categorical Imp of the Perverse," along with fresh work by Gabriel Josipovici (Whatever Happened to Modernism), and other luminaries. Here is a link to the line-up.
Here at the glorious MacDowell Colony, I have finished the final two essays of my book, now called Portals: Reflections on the Spirit in Matter. Here is a small excerpt from the last one.
Making Meaning II: Italian Journeys
My real delight is in the fruit,
in figs, also pears, which must surely be choice in a place where even lemons
grow. –Goethe, Italian Journey
My formula for greatness in a
human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward,
not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still
less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo
Italy, once called Augusta Taurinorum in honor of the bull sacred to Isis,
goddess of fertility, where Nietzsche went mad, embracing a beaten horse and
weeping, dancing naked in his room, and practicing Dionysian rites of
auto-eroticism; where, before his collapse, he enjoyed the air, the piazzas,
the cobblestones, and the gelato; where the ladies chose the sweetest grapes
for this reluctantly German philosopher, it is easy to feel the sensual, life-affirming,
Pagan roots of myth-making, to understand those humanistic allegories that sing
of life, love, pleasure, and appetite.At the opera, I heard Tosca sing, “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore” (I lived
for art, I lived for love). I indulged in long wine-drenched lunches on
unseasonably-sunny piazzas, and gazed at gleaming artifacts from ancient times
in dark museums. There was a secret restaurant where a small fierce woman named
Brunilde roughly took my order, displayed magical cakes with her wide toothy
smile, briskly removed the empty plates that once held the most delicious food
I’d ever eaten, brought me a shot glass with grapes soaked in absinthe with
dessert if I pleased her by ordering it, but growled me out the door if I was
too full or too stupid to partake of her pride and joy. I was in residence at
the Fusion Art Gallery on Piazza Amedeo Peyron, presided over by the wise and
warm painter, Barbara Fragnogna, who told me about the market across the way
which sold beautiful mushrooms, wild strawberries, and bread sticks with huge,
juicy olives. When I wasn’t eating, or wandering in museums, I was building an
elaborate book which folds and unfolds, and is painted and glued and stitched,
and “gold-leafed” with foil wrappers from the many gianduji chocolatesI
enjoyed. I threw off the layers of the Vermont winter to feel the wind and sun
on my body, and was reminded of how much our conclusions about what life means
are influenced by the relationship between our own physicality and the material
world which surrounds us.
Meaning is not something that we need to
artificially superimpose on the objects and events of the world through some
transcendental narrative or morality. It is not something we need to be taught
or coerced into seeing by external social construction or manipulative
indoctrination. If one is healthy, has an appetite, and senses for seeing,
hearing, tasting, and touching, beauty will be everywhere, as “the promise of
happiness” or, indeed, in the knowledge of happiness’s fleetingness or absence.
We are given the gift of colors and sounds, of textures and of
temperatures.And if all else fails,
this should be enough reason to be grateful for life. In addition to this
inherent meaning, this meaning without thought and evaluation, our intellectual
response to the physical facts of the world makes us dream, imagine, and invent
ever new celebrations and laments. These expressions will survive and
proliferate insofar as other humans resonate with them.And what resonates will be made manifest in
real made things, in built places, in enacted experiments. This is a discourse
and manifestation over millennia, from the ancient cave paintings to today:
humans trying to make sense of the terror and tenderness of the world. We do
not despair, we artists and “creative subjects”. Nor do we invent meanings that
attempt to twist the facts of nature: Gravity and Mortality are real.Instead, we work with what there is, and
endeavor to embrace it in all its fractured glory. Thus, also, the things that
wemake with our hands, out of paper,
pigments, wax, string, fire, earth, water and air, will fade, crumble, dissolve
in good time. They are already fragile, already very imperfect, already mostly
forgotten.And yet, their fleeting
presence is of the utmost importance.
I am sitting
on a bench in a church entranceway. A gray, cool, dreamy late morning. Some
high school students, girls and boys, gather at the other end of the stone
courtyard, gossiping, talking, laughing. Old people, alone, walk in and out of
the church. It is a Monday, and most shops here are closed, their metal
gratings pulled down. Dirty pigeons coo. In the back streets, a gentle squalor;
clothing hanging from lines; abandoned bicycles resting against elaborate
gates. On the walls, scraps of political agitation, left and right, shreds of
old posters, graffiti scrawls. People talk, but I don’t understand. Markets
everywhere, with abundance: artichokes and more artichokes, wheels of cheese,
sausages, chickens, lamb shanks, lemons. People smoke and joke, are grim or
warm. On my walk here I passed a waitress carrying a tray of espresso down the
street from a café out of sight, and a silver piece of paper blew to the
ground. I picked it up and handed it to her. Grazie, Signora. An elegant lady
walks up the church steps now, in perfectly matching brown and gold, soft
brimmed hat with gold trim, a brown cane, brown coat with fur collar, a purse
of gold and brown plaid, little brown shoes, dark sunglasses. All her
belongings and all her faith perfectly intact from another era. Trucks rumble
by; otherwise it is quiet, peaceful. Balconies preserve foliage from the
summer, not quite dead, but not quite blooming, vines dangling; a single
bruised yellow rose lilts; while back in Vermont everything is covered in snow
and ice. This is a life. Anywhere is a life. How different, how similar is it
to and from mine, from or to yours? And how does it happen that it evolved to
be like this here and some other way somewhere else?
The social constructionists murdered Meaning long ago, but
she persists to move us, naïve as we are.And, lo, we understand each other, more or less, despite cultural crisis
and alienation, despite the treachery of concepts and the mis-pris(i)on house
of language! They warn us that our every impulse has been constructed randomly out
of nothing, or, at best, out of the machinations of the people in power who
have managed over centuries to control our minds, our behaviors, our hearts
with the deceitful seductions of fairy tales, myths, art, religion, and
philosophy. Inexchange, then, for putting away these
beloved artifacts of the “ages of ignorance,” they offer us their scoffing
analysis, which uncovers the fact (which sages of all ages already knew) that
concepts and words are inaccurate delimitations of the multifarious irreducible
variety of reality, and that humans tend to form habits which keep them from
re-evaluating their values. That humans can be lazy and conformist, and that
words only approximate the things and experiences that they describe, are not
good enough reasons to throw over all of the attempts made by our less than
lazy fellow humans over the ages to understand and celebrate and lament and
re-imagine our shared existence. Only a
theorist lacking in aesthetic sense, lacking in love, in human emotion could
deny that human beings speak to each other across time and cultures through
stories and symbols that carry meanings, albeit imperfectly understood. That
the translation is imprecise is not a good reason to give up on the fraught but
difficultchallenge of communication
from person to person, language to language, culture to culture, past to
present to future. Yes, much of what we believe, much of our behavior, has been
socially constructed, but this construction has been and continues to be our own
work as humans. Nietzsche called us “creative subjects,” and our role, should
we awaken from our “wretched contentment” into agency and joyful wisdom, is to
continually co-create new ways of being in the world out of the dirty and
living roots of our shared human experience. The artist, as the “creative
subject” par excellence, re-vivifies stale images and ossified words,
dissolving the fixed relations and drawn boundaries around entities and forging
new meaningful connections between materiality and imagination, individual
particularity and archetypal abstraction. But we all must participate in this
process of backward and forward and eastern and western-seeing, engaging in the
concerns and delights of our ancestors and our neighbors and continually
considering which still serve us and which would best be re-imagined. We must take up the iconoclastic axes—not to
smash the divine artifacts of the past, but —to chisel new forms out of old
Consider a paved path in a city. Sometimes, even though
the powers that be have paved a sidewalk and expected the citizens to conform
to its guidelines, someone feels that there is a better way to get from here to
there, and enough people feel their feet drawn to this alternate way, that the
people begin to tread a new path through an area that was intended to be grass.
There are desire lines stronger than social constructs, and these desire lines
insist on new arrangements of the world even though (or perhaps precisely
because) the old ones have been established by asphalt. The new paths, which
were once rebellious and eccentric become, in time, established,
sanctioned, and limiting, and new people may find that there are better ways to
get from here to there. If language has
tendencies to close down against thought, language users also have tendencies
to disrupt these patterns. If people in power attempt to coerce and control,
less powerful people also have always subverted these attempts. Consider how
pilgrims in early Christianity resisted the Church’s injunctions against idol
worship and the kissing and fondling of relics. Consider the Copernican revolution, Relativity, &c. No path is made without the
desire of some person, without the choice of some person or for some reason
(however good or bad). The path may be made because of beauty or utility or for
sentimental reasons, for access to a view, because it is private, because there
are no obstacles underneath or adjacent to it, because there are special
features along the route, or because there are no other options left. But any path
will revert to wildness in time if no one walks upon it.
In the Egyptian Museum in Torino I am astonished by the way
the ancient Egyptians had an instinct for symmetry, for placing each depicted
object or vignette centrally within a frame, for aligning each hieroglyph in a
uniform square of space, for leaving the most graceful and harmonious negative
space between the hand of the man holding a slaughtered bird by its neck and
the fronds of the plant in a vase by his side. A sense of what is beautiful,
evidently, is at least somewhat natural and universal. And the works of art or
ritual made with this sense of what is beautiful still resonate with a
mysterious significance, even if we today cannot fully understand or believe in
the things that were sacred to the people who made them.Translation across time and cultures is
needed for a more approximate comprehension of the objects, but something very
powerful, something powerfully familiar is present even without a struggle. What
we want is to maintain the strangeness, while approaching a comprehension.What we must avoid is to diminish difference
in the interest of a complete and total correspondence.
I am operating in a language I barely know, but I do make
myself understood, more or less, with the few Italian words I mispronounce and
the few I manage to understand. Sometimes
we communicate better with someone who does not speak our language or who lived
in another era or lives in another continent than we do with a coeval
compatriot. But a good part of the pleasure of communication is in the frisson
of partial misunderstanding, in the incommensurable distance between one mind
and another struggling to approximate a shared vision. Translation is necessary
even without a language barrier, and we all do our best to reveal and conceal
our meanings from each other. Yes, conceal also. Indeed, as Steiner explained
in After Babel, the differences
between languages may be a result of a human need to differentiate a group from
another, to keep secrets, to individuate from what may be a basically universal
commonality. There are twin drives to compare
and contrast, to find analogies, metaphors, likenesses, and to insist on
differences, incompatibilities, untranslatables.While Steiner acknowledges that much of
communication is miscommunication, and that translation appropriates and
distorts the original language or meaning, he concludes that the misprision
ultimately adds something to the original and that without the admittedly
imperfect mechanism of language (which itself is a translation from inner to
outer), we would have no culture, no community at all.Translation or solipsism. Most of the people who deny language its ability to communicate are still talking and writing. They have failed to follow up their assertions with their ultimate conclusions, and have therefore led us astray. The same can be said about the way we are told we should operate when it comes to differences and correspondences. We are to ignore differences and deny correspondences. Leaving us precisely where?
Today our basic assumptions about correspondence and
difference are paradoxical. On the one hand, we insist that everyone is equal,
the same, indistinguishable (or that they should be, were we to look beyond
superficial and erroneous external, physical differences). On the other hand, we insist that it is
impossible to understand the other,
that there are no universals and there is no shared sense of value, and that language
barely helps us to communicate with each other since it is so very distant from
the things it claims to signify as to be actually treacherous.Both of these assumptions depend on a denial
of the reality or the importance of the physical world, on a denial of any
meaningful relationship between nature and cultural norms, between the physical
world and the language that describes it, the human brain and its sensory
apparatus, and, finally, between one human brain and another.At once we are trying to strip away
differences that might cause conflict, justify hierarchies or discriminations
(resulting in a neutering and neutralizing homogeneity) and to deny that these newly neutralized beings will be able to understand each other
despite the pervasive removal of the characteristics that seem to have caused
all the trouble in the first place. Perhaps the unspoken hope is that the
neutralization and leveling, the moral rejection of the physical world (beauty,
ugliness, pain, pleasure, differences) will eventually really result in a homogeneity
so complete that, even if we no longer have anything interesting to say or any unique
artistic expressions to make, we will at least make no more war, at least
harbor no resentment or hate against the “other” anymore—because there will be
no more other. And no differential qualities whatsoever to get in the way of
perfect passive niceness.
Ernst Haeckel, Kunstformen der Natur (art forms of nature)
On one level, seeing shapes and patterns where they are not "really" there may be called pareidolia, most often ridiculed as a psychosis
that sees Madonna and Jesus faces in rock formations and baked goods. But all of our seeing is a process of selecting out and processing that to some extent belies the fact that reality is a mass of non delineated color and light, a mass of shifting molecules temporarily huddled into seemingly distinct shapes and beings. We can question whether the things we see are really rightly to be delineated as separate or if our particular arrangements of what belongs with what or who with whom are full contextualizations or merely (socially) constructed biases or limitations.
We can say the same thing about language and the concepts that it forms. Many argue that words are a crime against the multifarious differentiation of reality. That they name and delimit what is really irreducible and unnameable. Names and words and categories pull some things together with other things, leaving other things out, and ignore the qualities of the named and categorized things that do not fit in with the given names--qualities that might better fit these things to be named and arranged in different categories altogether. Is the creation of a concept thus a form of pareidolia?
When we note a pattern, say of bird of insect movement, of repeating forms in nature, in fairy tales, or of habitual actions in our own lives, are we ignoring all of the elements that would render the categorized thing, action, or thought unfitting to be classed within the pattern-concept-arrangement? Or is there really a way to establish that something is enough like something else to establish that it is a pattern and thereby attempt to draw meaning from it?
And there is the crisis point: because we want to draw meaning. And we draw meaning from things that repeat, from something that seems to be universal or at least not a mere exclusive random aberration. It might be absolutely accurate to say that everything is everything and thereby all patterns and all names and all conceptualizations are inaccurate and limiting, that the only accurate vision of reality is of a moving mass of colors and light without delineation or individuation.
Babies start by seeing that way, but over time begin to recognize shapes, distance, faces. Carl Sagan writes that pareidolia itself might be an evolutionary adaptation, since those babies who were able to recognize faces would respond to the faces, smiling, and making eye contact, and thus were cared for and thus survived. This is pretty suggestive, because if we were to consciously try as a culture to repress conceptualization, arrangement, and the meaning making that rests on this patterning process, we would end up being unable to communicate with each other, and we would not only not survive, but we would not be we. Interestingly, autistic children have a hard time making the kind of eye contact that Sagan suggests was good for survival (probably not because they do not recognize faces though).
Many say we are now becoming a culture of autism, one in which people do not communicate, one in which people are trapped in their own worlds without the ability to share experience, emotion, ideas. Thus, although the process of making arrangements and making concepts does perforce leave things out, although it is always going to be inaccurate, although it may look like psychosis or pareidolia, it seems far better to me to make provisional arrangements and to use language and concepts (while all the while acknowledging that their meanings can be fluid, changing, rearranged) than to exist in an undifferentiated sea of colors and non-shapes of non-delineated and non-communicated non-ideas.
Metaphor is the temporary union of two things that are not strictly the same, but similar enough that their comparison brings, as Robert Musil wrote, "beauty and excitement into the world". Making meaning is a matter of seeing patterns and making metaphors. These patterns and metaphors are fruitful and have longevity (in the sense of Dawkins's memes--see below) if they reverberate with other humans, suggesting a real shared meaning (not just a random socially constructed one). Let us continue to see patterns and relations, to make provisional arrangements. Let us continue to make meanings.