So What it's all About Anyway?

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“A writer ought not to be an opinion-machine… The job of the writer is to make us see the world as it is, full of many different claims and parts and experiences.” — Susan Sontag
 

 

There's always been a fine line separating what we choose to see of the world from how it really is. Yet the backbone to creativity resides in an ability to skate across these enigmatic lines into the realm of some other, unknown reality. Whether it delights or sometimes disturbs, what it continually offers us are opportunities to learn, rather than simply react. Although this process can be a mysterious one — keeping itself hidden from plain view — with a certain kind of patience and curiosity it can open new contexts and perspectives on our seeing ways. Yet not matter how dedicated we may be, there's a tendency to default back into predetermined categories that rest and forget about the more difficult, unknown contexts that may abound. We create mindless assumptions about the motivations of ones and others — whether righteous or not — while suffocating the ability to expand on them further. In her studies on mindfulness, Ellen Langer argues, "We make them [these categories of seeing] mindfully, and then we start to use them mindlessly, forgetting that... we’re people." Seeing is “the simple act of actively noticing things”.


  Theodor Lipps

Theodor Lipps

Although we are often encouraged to process what we see as immediate, emotional experiences — ones that we often sleep-walk through — to deeply see (what Theodor Lipps called Einfühlung or empathy) is to move past those initial categories, beyond one's own distracted self. Of course, this may sound like a type of passive mysticism or daydream (which is not entirely wrong), yet at its heart is an active process that builds a more vivid picture of the histories and the values shaping us. It remains active in its curiosity to read more, learn more and see more by getting lost in the tentacles of other thinking. What can emerge are the larger reflections to worths and wants.


Seeing is “the simple act of actively noticing things”

William of Ockham

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Oil painting Justus Sustermans, 1635.

For centuries thinkers have explored approaches that oppose the binary minds that often govern by rote; from Occam's Razor and the Anti-Razor's, to Feynman's Cargo Cult Science, to Galileo's tenets of thinking, to Anatol Rapaport's rules of debate, or the epic masterpieces of the modernist artists, each in their own way insist on acknowledging a certain kind of ignorance as the departure points for learning. To offer ideas, mistakes or just simply unknowns is essential to discovering the bigger picture of who we are. For so long, many of us have treated these works as oddities to how things ought to be, or even worse, just inherited parts of the scenery, of likes or dislikes. Yet their value resides in an awareness of both the similarities and radical variations in our seeing categories. What makes Duchamp's, Galileo's, Virginia Woolf's or Feynman's work so vital is that they remind us of a world that we often take for granted. Their artworks or writings, as objects, remain less vital than the thinking behind them; a thinking that urges us to see past default categories with a deeper curiosity to another time or place. Their works have come to represent not the obvious surface of things, but the power that lies hidden beyond them. After all, as Marilynne Robinson wrote, "the beautiful persists, and so do eloquence and depth of thought, and they belong to all of us because they are the most pregnant evidence we can have of what is possible in us." Her words capture the spirit of wonder that searches across the seemingly mundane to discover our connecting cords, despite the many fears to realize what they may hold. "Do not obey in advance" argues historian Timothy Snyder, look longer and see more. And what more could it be all about?

— Michael Graf


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