When it comes to the ways that we see, there are three questions that each of us should be able to answer.
One — how does language really work? Two — what can it do to help or hinder our wellbeing? Three — why?
Although there are no easy answers to these questions, in pursuing them, they inch us closer to a deeper understanding of our human condition — and more importantly, the power to reshape ourselves within it.
Language — as we use it in music, myth, fable or fact — is one of our greatest ‘evolutionary’ tools. Although it appears as a seamless part of our lives, its most unique ability is to read and share the intentions of authors, subjects, and audiences between themselves. Yet this gift is also something we tend to use with careless disregard. The symbols we use to shape language and art are not merely drawn from the cultural preferences around us, but from our developmental struggles within them — something we tend to forget. The fuel behind all this is metaphor, which literally translates to ‘carrying over’ one meaning through that of another. And it forms the seedbed of thought and language used here. How we go about cultivating these seedbeds is what makes us a uniquely ‘poetic animal’.
The benefits from building and expanding these languages are self-understandings — not just as individuals, but as societies, groups or clans as a whole. Our successes in navigating them are rooted in an ability to establish common goals. Languages — including words, image, or music — can help to reimagine how those goals get realized. And that flies in the face of how we tend to see art, often labeling it as, ‘It’s just what I like’. I’ve never been a proponent of this thinking because… well… it’s lazy! The languages within the arts can help us to build a more robust common knowledge — not just through reactions, but a deeper aptitude for human behaviours and motivations. Understanding these behaviours can keep us honest about our own duplicities within them.
And why? The pursuit of common goals and long-term objectives are the bedrock of sustainable wellbeing. To better discern these goals, and for our human condition to thrive, we need to see past the doctrinaire nature of ideologies — no matter how beholden we are to them. Although it may seem easier to see through the prisms of only ‘chosen’ beliefs, or worse slogans, history has shown us no cultures that have endured without a diversity of thought and perspective. ‘Other’ has never been about appeasing audiences with wants or whims, instead about challenging us to grow as both groups and individuals. And yet, the inherent conflicts between the ‘one’ and the ‘many’ are ideas we continue to grapple with. And this clash of forces is one that will never result in complete equilibrium. If they leap too far towards individualisms, or on the other hand, too far toward to blind universalisms, our societies will collapse. As we move back and forth between one behaviour and the other, the languages of the arts can help to give a more complete sense of the human equations guiding us through them — a better understanding of one and other.
So what’s left? As our ‘eyes’ play a more potent role in our evolving languages and interfaces, we seem to being caring less for the ingredients that we feed them. The 12 degrees offer a way of rekindling the power of our visual thinking and especially our mind’s eye. Without learning how to discern the duplicity, rhetoric, or deceptions in our seeing ways, we will forever remain in deep pool of ignorance about them. Here, a way out is called Otherness, or seeing as Strangers to Ourselves. And it’s a skill that’s never been more important. It can teach us about one of life’s most wondrous yet overlooked gifts — our cycles of language, self-understanding and the mind’s eye.
The 12 degrees are presented here as ‘thought problems’, or living voices common within us all, yet rendered through the guise of another. And together, they create a model of endless inquiry and discovery about our all too fallible human nature.
Works and Words by Michael Graf.