Sample Opening Chapter
A Personal Degree — What We Get Wrong About Otherness
It’s a ‘secret theatre’ inside us all wrote American psychologist Julian Jaynes. An endless labyrinth of inner monologues, unknown secrets, and imagined debates where we each of us silently speak in two voices, manipulating matters of ourselves and of others. However we choose to deal with it, this is the realm of our thoughts — our consciousness. These are the mysterious parts of us that ‘peer’ across cultures and causes, mores and meanings, often bending one’s revolution into other’s reflection, one’s whims into other’s wants. But as Jaynes once declared, “It is the difference that will not go away, the difference between what others see of us and our sense of our inner selves.” As perplexing as these inner debates may seem, it’s only through the arts and sciences that the depths of their possibilities begin to unfold. These disciplines, I believe, are not luxuries separate from the ‘real’ world, but are the vehicles where our truths and meanings emerge, our appetites and behaviours surface, and our means of becoming and remaining human reside. Essential to shaping language and comprehension, the arts and sciences provide us with the tools for imaginative thought, whose task is not just to answer, but to ask deeper questions of the mysteries around us. The author James Baldwin might have put it best in his decree on the role of the artist — to ask better questions of the answers we so readily accept. It was from this notion that the 12 degrees were slowly formed. Throughout this collection you’ll be introduced to other thinkers, modes of complementary thought, parables about seeing, and most importantly, decades of image making and research that were used to build our many castles in the sky. But to be clear, the works here are not simply about art or science, but competing models of thought and language that can better illuminate our human condition — from induction and deduction, reductionism and emergence, reason and reflex, inner (self) and outer (groups), or simply put, ones and others. This idea of Otherness centres on alternating perceptions that we’ve all grappled with over countless generations, yet often struggle to imagine ourselves as part of. Look no further than the centuries old symbol of Yin Yang — a principle that implies that all things exist as indivisible and contradictory opposites, with both sides containing parts of their other. Some physicists have used it to describe the foundations of our physical world, while others refer to it as a symbol of complementarity.
With that principal in mind, I’ve always maintained a belief that audiences should be dealt measures of respect, and those measures should complement themselves through challenges. So to you dear reader (or viewer), I extend not just reasons or reactions about a self, but experiences that challenge how both these responses are essential to our seeing ways. The arts help us by pressing further into the life of the inner mind, helping us grapple with the equations of moral thinking, while the sciences press further into the outer world, grappling with the predictive nature of the universe. The battle between these modes of thought is often considered the struggle between meanings (arts) and truths (sciences). With these two languages in hand, we have a spectacular potential to extend our sensory perceptions beyond all other life. But as moral machines that wield these powers, we often have a weak sense of their influences on our sustained wellbeing, and an even worse sense of future impacts. As we enter an era of unprecedented connection and communication, the search for balanced and more sustainable perceptions cannot be found in isolating how we see and think, but through what famed biologist Edward O. Wilson calls a ‘consilience among them’, or a unity of knowledge. Our wellbeing will remain forever vulnerable if the world remains relative to ‘us’ and only ‘our’ practices. Despite technology's incredible potential to connect us, one of the downfalls of our current ‘Attention Economy’ is the belief that we have a fundamental right to see free of contexts or histories, where issues depend on only ‘one’ point of view. It’s become a misguided form of freedom, and it’s surfacing more and more through a media saturated landscape. Yet the function of both the arts and sciences is to offer tools to help challenge how these perceptions and misconceptions are formed. ‘Image’ as it functions here, is not just a device for the senses (our eyes), but a model of understanding social behaviours and categories differently. It’s been argued that the arts and sciences evolve in similar ways as organic life does. They learn to react from environments, constantly taking feedback while offering ‘others’ in return. But when we grow numb to this feedback, its needs, or influences, the arts can respond by reawakening the awe in the mind’s eye, while the sciences can shift the analytical modes of our minds — each thriving off the other. Arranged as mosaics, the anecdotes and images that flow across these pages function as ways of testing, wrestling, and challenging us to contemplate ourselves and our cultural influences in alternate ways. The goal is to promote ways of seeing and understanding ourselves through cultural analysis, communication, and reflection.
Yet over these years, I’ve noticed a tendency for us to separate our perceptions into two disparate worlds — the arts into feelings and reactions, while the sciences into reasons, often confusing their values along the way. It reminds me of a famous story that one of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers, Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman once told of an artist friend who held a flower up to him and declared “look how beautiful it is”, to which Feynman agreed. His friend then argued “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” Feynman was baffled by this comment. He realized the immense knowledge and wonders of the flower that remained hidden from plain view. The structures of the cells capturing light from the sun, the inner workings of its cellular machinery, the fact that the flower evolved colours to attract insects who pollinate it to form an ‘insect aesthetic’ of their own — to Feynman all these mechanics, hidden far beneath a surface, only added to its beauty and wonder. Looking at this flower on its own, it remained something marvellous, yet perplexing. Upon seeing it within the otherness of a whole, the complex web of rhythms only added layers of depth and beauty to its life. What remains so potent in Feynman’s approach is that even at the most seemingly mundane levels, the powers of life around us can never be understood in isolation. From a common housefly called Hercules, to the wonders of our consciousness, their existence evolves through a long unseen lineage of influences, contexts and interactions with others. The physicist Brian Cox once pointed out that if we pause for just a moment to consider ourselves, as viewers in this equation, we realize that the same basic biochemistry in the flower exists within us as well. The essence of ‘Feynman’s flower’ imparts a great wisdom — that beyond the façades of everyday life lie more than just the simple equations of beauty or bad, but an Otherness that delves into the depths, diversities and complexities of our being — reminding us that to simply look at them is not the same as to see them.
But in many ways the arts have formed their own crisis of being by isolating themselves from the deeper cultural roots shaping our evolutions.The impressions and sensations we use to approach artworks become...well, favourite flavours. We often fail to acknowledge the merit of experimental and metaphoric languages as tools of the mind and reflections of a culture. It sometimes leaves us with a sense of artistic hegemony, encumbered by a belief that there’s only ‘one’ perception among endless cycles that seems to matter — our own. Because the arts can often have such a weak sense of affective thinking, or why’s, they can remain needlessly self referential and adverse to ‘other’ levels of reason. On the other hand, the sciences can also become overwhelmed with a hyper-rationality that forges past its own principles of reason — the bloody French “Reign of Terror” being an extreme example of hyper-rationality gone wrong. These single levels of thought have also been leveraged in advertising, entertainment and the theatres of politics for decades, often at the expense of realizing the larger living ecosystem. Yet it’s between the deep co-operations, constructions and communications of other practices and perspectives that our species has found such success. The goal ‘of Other’ is to render parts of our human perceptions from alternating angles, and to gain a deeper lucidity to how we define and balance our perceptions. Or as Goethe once argued, analysis and synthesis are the keys to thought, it becomes just like breathing.
A theme that might best illustrate how this notion of Otherness really works — which is a surprisingly simple idea —is to imagine our eyes as alternate characters in an old-school, crime drama. In it, our eyes play 2 roles — ‘one eye’ is our intuition that reacts to the drama unfolding before of us in instinctive and emotional ways. So when Frankie Fingers punches Petey Squints in the kisser knocking out his chicklets, it feels good to watch it unfold (since I never cared much for Petey’s face). On the other hand, the mind’s eye, or ‘two eyes,’ contemplates carefully how this rationale unfolds. So when Frankie Fingers punches Petey Squints in the kisser — it might feel good to watch — but the impetus was unwarranted since he was overreacting to a dented car door (his son drove it into a mailbox). It’s an odd parable that echoes what studies in psychology have hinted at for years — when our ‘one eye’ or instincts read a situation wrong, the ‘two eyes’ or rationale can struggle to correct it, especially when it can’t see the problem. The moral of the story — keep both eyes open. Perhaps a check of both our emotions and rationales might be in order from time to time. Psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman continue to unfold how instincts can be crucial for thinking, but cautions that they are prone to biases, while rationales help us to understand their functioning but at the expense of great mental effort. Both are used here not to measure different kinds of abnormalites, but as degrees between ourselves. The two-mirrored volumes are created in the same spirit of these two omniscient eyes. Volume One is based on the rationale, while Volume Two sets a stage for the instincts and their technological filters to emerge. The reoccurring theme you’ll find here is the notion of two faculties trying to see in conflicting ways — or Other. Creativity can be similarly defined using this method. Its definition includes an ability to think in both divergent ways (the free instincts), while also connecting them to a deeper utility or relevance (the commanding rationale). But this dual process is not unique to just artists or scientists, it’s part of an inherent system that audiences use to strengthen their own cultural literacy and understandings. Thoughtful observers should always be weary of narratives that paint the world in black or white simplicities to extoll just one belief. Psychologists warn of flaws in these types of binary thinking that can distort meanings and truths, and consequently relational thinking between us. It includes something called ‘the halo effect’ or what I like to call the devil’s elbows. According to psychologists, the effect keeps explanations and observations simple and coherent. Its elbows nudge what we perceive into simply binaries like, ‘good people do only good things and bad people are all bad’. Anything that might disrupt the ease of our thoughts and feelings is immediately dismissed. Since seeing as Other can be one of those things, we often dismiss or discredit the impressions that don’t immediately measure up to one’s ideals. Recognizing issues in others while dismissing them in ourselves is part of how these ‘elbows’ flourish.
When I began this journey many years ago, I choose to devote myself to a visual philosophy that was partly inspired by Feynman’s approach to the flower and by Kahneman’s psychology of other ways of seeing. In surveying thousands of different media scripts and images that included advertising, social, documentary and portrait practices, my attempts were not just to address the appeals of isolated audiences or genres of image, but the endless streams of subjects and desires that we all possess, yet often bend into simple equations of one’s or other’s. The premise was born from the idea that acknowledging alternate vantages was the key to learning — using art and science, truths and meanings, or logic and impressions. Yet much of the material in this collection was distilled from a media driven culture that often coveted its own seemingly ‘individual’ freedoms to perceive. Paradoxically, it often considered this to be the de facto standard of all human perceptions. Audience feedback, focus groups and lifestyle appeals were often designed to leverage this feeling through narratives and slogans claiming one’s redemptive values over another’s. Many of these media pronouncements were being created by western sub-cultures, which included data engineers and advertising experts. Much of my own media exposure was comprised of Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic people — or what psychologist Joseph Henrich coined WEIRD people. But as a demographic, this group represented approximately one tenth of humanity’s whole. This, in part, laid out another type of thinking that the 12 degrees would try to explore. Many psychologists began to wonder if this type of group-think could be justified as the universal standard for all. Could specific ideals in western sub-cultures about visual reasoning, fairness, categorizations, moral reasoning, the boundaries between self and others, or the way we impart motivations on others be representative of all humans? Were our seemingly cavalier media perceptions universals? Although we tend to share many similarities in our reasoning, behavioural sciences began to ask whether our perceptions tended to be independent and self-governing, or interconnected to the varied influences around just us. Crucially, these two different social perspectives (one individualized, and the other holistic) can also affect aspects of our reasoning. In some ways, WEIRD perceptions and their individualized problem solving tendencies could be considered outliers in the history of human machinery, yet in many conclusions about human behaviour, they represented a vast majority of the data.
Over the decades, researchers have consistently observed different patterns of thought and perception in different societies. At the risk of oversimplifying it all, Westerners tend to think more analytically, while Eastern cultures tend to think more holistically. And these two ways of thinking can be really quite different. Analytic thinkers, for example, can be more likely than holistic thinkers to commit attribution errors — which can overestimate the influence of figures, while miscalculating the influence of larger contexts. This type of analytic problem solving bases itself more on isolated elements of an image. On the other hand, holistic thinking often uses a more dialectical approach that includes a focus on background elements in visual scenes. But there is also a tendency to miscalculate these external dynamics and their benefits or influences on individuals. Holistic thinkers tend to give wider attention to contexts and relationships. A simple example of this illustrates a larger figure peering over a smaller one. For many western eyes, this figure often represents an oppression of the smaller figure, while for eastern groups, this might mean authority or loyalty towards hierarchies in kin or clan. These observations loosely illustrate two different ‘styles’ of interpreting gestures, figures and image. For example, the ‘western’ craving for individualized perceptions can also manifest itself in a self-inflated, mighty overconfidence to evaluting scenes. In one study, ninety four percent of Western academia considered themselves to be more qualified than all their peers. These cross-cultural studies highlight that at times the western eye can be among the most self-aggrandizing on the planet, and can be more likely to promote itself above others. It’s something called the illusory superiority bias and it was often visible in parts of a media culture I was exposed to. Yet despite the aggrandizing or miscalculations, both perspectives hold their own unique vices and virtues. People with ‘holistic eyes’ often spend more time working out their settings as a whole, but sometimes at the expense of basic freedoms (the former Soviet fervour for collectivization being an extreme example). These two types of perceptions — holistic and individual — partially manifest in Feynman’s story, and also unfold through the ideas presented here. Although neither is implicitly better, they simply highlight what Henrich suggests is a “less cavalier approach in addressing questions of human nature” that often base themselves on a “thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity.” Although these studies are not finite markers of our nature, they highlight that our environments and the factors we introduce into them — such as media and technology — can markedly shift our perceptions. It seems that perceiving others, ourselves, and reality itself through either extreme universalisms, or as isolated individualisms can hopelessly impair our problem solving abilities. The aim here is to address rather than dismiss issues of difference, and in turn, shift our eyes to look beneath polarizing surfaces or glossy veneers to explore what lies below. Across the many theatres presented, if there is anything they can offer you, it is a means of acknowledging the breadth and complexity of our perceptions, and we how we use them to navigate our worlds differently. It is type of overwhelming, inquisitive approach that might be best summarized by Isaac Newton, “I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
So as it unfolds across these pages, the nature of otherness does not stand in opposition or exclusion to others, nor does it try to romanticize or demonize their effigies, it simply looks to capture something of our biases to elevate icons on one hand, and shatter them on the other (patterns that we’ve become all too complacent in interpreting, misinterpreting and wielding at leisure). This increasing tendency to author our impressions as social, political or cultural facts — without underlying contexts — has become something of a worrisome trend. As ‘image’ becomes more and more ubiquitous, this work grew out of a concern for how well we — and myself included — recognize our own visual biases unfolding around us. Central to this is an understanding of what bias is, and how it skews perceptions, meanings, and most importantly, our intelligences. The German biologist Jakob von Uexküll argued that all of us, all species, have a particular ‘Suchbild’ —which is a target-image in our mind’s eye. Essentially it’s a predetermined idea of what we are looking for before we scan across an image (and when left unguided, this can default into hidden biases or preferences as opposed to study and discovery). In the case of media and social messaging, these search-images include intentions, suggestions, metrics, or gut-feelings that usually direct us toward a ‘remedy’, or toward an answer that a service could satisfy. From dish spots, to fashions, to social platforms, each try to impart a sense of freedom from fear, shame, antipathy or some uncomfortable issue. So as technology shifts our attentions further away from realities into impressions and social hierarchies, this shift is something that the 12 degrees attempt to explore. Like many of the modernist artists who over a century ago set out to capture something of the inner mind as the modernity of the industrial revolution tried to command its outer reality — the works here set out to capture something of the mind’s inner bias as the modernity of an attention age attempts to leverage its reality.
To help better understand what shapes our seeing biases, psychologist Jonathan Haidt loosely identified our moral foundations as care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity and liberty. Together, they form a type of bedrock to how we leverage meaning and value from what we see. Yet what is critical to Haidt’s foundations is that each has another competing form — harm, cheating, betrayal, subversion, and oppression. Together they comprise two sides of the same coin, and both are crucial to help navigate the diversity of human thought and motivation. Borrowing gestures and tools from common media narratives, the 12 degrees create a spectrum of these values that we sometimes struggle to fully see. The goal is not to apply narrower biases, but a broader array of them from points of view other than one’s own. For example, some may perceive the value of liberty above all others, and some sanctity, while others may see only fairness, often forgetting other values altogether —this is similar to the ‘Suchbild’. Through it, whatever values we hold dear remain obvious to us. But that also poses a problem — we might call it the fallacy of obviousness, because we readily miss other possibilities at play, focusing instead on our own target values and beliefs. Distracted by this search, we neglect what might be pertinent information to a deeper picture. And yet, this clash of values can never result in complete equilibrium. If they are guided too far toward individual values, societies would disintegrate. On the other hand, if they lean too far toward obedience to all, our groups would revert into tribalisms. As it plays out across this work, otherness grapples with our archetypes and behaviours by grappling with the inner mind with outer meanings. This becomes the story of our lives and the inherent struggles to share them with one another.
Many physicists, comedians, authors, artists and philosophers, use this struggle to expand the vision we have of ourselves — or as Feynman once put it, to see as Martians to ourselves. Psychologists sometimes call this exercise a theory of mind, and it necessitates perspective differences, perceptual diversities, as well as the inevitable frictions that arise when we begin to see common motivations rendered otherwise. But this exercise also requires resisting a very natural urge — when confronted with ‘other’ meanings — to become less perceptive, less generous and less open to the spectrum of human thought. Without a variety of foundations to draw upon, understandings can become increasingly flat, defined by a rejection of anything outside of one’s own group-perceptions, or as Haidt argues, “it becomes impossible to think beyond.” This tendency keeps surfacing at increasingly alarming rates across our attention driven economy, revealing a vulnerability to our own polarized perceptions. He warns that when we operate from only single foundations in the spectrum of values, such as fairness, we do so at the expense of the broader functions of sanctity or authority, or even worse, navigating basic moral meanings. As Haidt famously argues, we “bind” ourselves to a certain value, but “blind” ourselves to the function of others.
Every culture on earth has a very broad conception of these values and how they use them in their social orders, yet the echo chamber of some cultures can sometimes convert single notions of fairness or authority to trump all others, shrinking the observational domain. When it comes to evaluating our perceptions Haidt suggests, “we think we are scientists discovering the truth, but actually we are lawyers arguing for positions we arrived at by other means.” As the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once argued, we need to believe that people have a right to their own opinions, but not a right to their own facts. This can be more difficult than we think, since our perceptions of fact are often filtered through bias, or an automatic rather than reflective mind. The evolution of neuroscience suggests that these modes of perception are more like a dual system of decision-making between feelings and reasons. Yet in many studies on these unconscious reactions, psychologists have shown that we can also unknowingly harbour biases about how we try to measure them. At times the ways we respond toward different complexions, genders, ethnicities, weapons, food, religion, worship or sex can all be swayed and motivated without us knowing — and that applies to how we measure our reactions as well. But to counter these instincts, the belief is to confront hidden biases with visible ones, and to find ways to test impressions before they distort our behaviours, and especially our beliefs about them. Since so much of our language is formed through image, the idea of the degrees tries to capture a notion of biases at work, and to expose components of visual thinking as they are used in cultures. It’s a philosophy that does not simply condemn or laugh at others, but contemplates our own messy selves within the equation of a whole.
To demonstrate a bias unfolding, the series coined Other Grace (images from livestock farming in Peru) often elicits very strong and polarized responses. For many, it’s difficult to confront the reality of slaughter, while for others it’s just an immediate reaction. But through the countless eyes that have contemplated it, a set of three responses generally occur. The first is of disgust (I find this especially strange from those who eat meat and who love the burger, but simply can’t acknowledge how it’s made). Many others gain a contempt for those who eat meat, with their reactions becoming deeply politicized. The last and somewhat rarer response is about the recognition of what food can mean, or the difficult exchange of life begetting life. But the most prevalent response is of disgust, and it’s an overwhelming illustration of how disconnected we can become to our own histories and contexts — something that the works set out to explore. (The conditions under which this series were created are of particular note. Rather than capturing the images with available light, or using low light documentary tools, the images were created in slaughterhouses and farms using full stage lighting and still life cameras found mainly on commercial, packaged food sets. The result is a hybrid of stagecraft.)
As an Attention Economy increasingly encourages mental shortcuts as tools for faster, more impulsive impressions, instincts can easily fashion themselves into truths, leaving us somewhat vulnerable to misguided beliefs. With the onslaught of image, and a lack of understanding behind them, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify how care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity and liberty might be interpreted differently in one’s, other’s, or in ourselves. Hannah Arendt once warned that for the first time in history all peoples at either end of the globe have a common present. But what Arendt feared most was that this tantalizing unity of the world might result in an increase in mutual irritability of everybody against everybody else. To explore this, the 12 degrees use image and story to imagine a spectrum of values and perceptions at work in differing contexts. Yet it’s crucial to realize that the degrees leveraged here are not simply fashions presented as facts, but thinking exercises about how we see them. The hope is to expand the kaleidoscope of our thinking about truths and ideals, and how they move us, deceive us, and affect us differently. The conclusions can be difficult, or just plain awkward, but I urge to see and explore without fear, and to walk in the shoes of others, no matter how ill-fitting they may seem. Without the urge to explore the truths and ideals that guide them we will remain in a deep pool of ignorance about them.
Across countless generations, thinkers such as Plato and Nietzsche have thought deeply about how to navigate the gamut between these truths and ideals. Plato — like many of us today — promoted a notion of the perfect form or golden ideal that our often-messy lives should be measured against. He argued that the Philosopher King was justified in promoting it as a type of “Noble Lie” to foster a public harmony or objective. Nietzsche, in a different way, believed that we were more or less oblivious to the lies that we live, often sleepwalking through them. Nietzsche suggests that we will never reach a complete consensus through immutable or isolated ideals. Rather, he urged that in building the notions of a truth, we need to gather as many contexts or vantages as possible to deliberate from. In other words, to make sense of the world we need the contexts ‘of Other’, or a deep plurality of perspectives. Nietzsche was calling for a type of “revaluing” of our sometimes weak relationship with the truth, highlighting how we often bend it or deny it at will into Left or Right, Beauty or Bad, while cutting its connecting cords.
In his treatise on metaphor, James Geary describes how the mission of famed 19th century poet Arthur Rimbaud urged us to reconsider these connecting cords in a similar manner. He believed that the sacred cows of a culture’s habituated ideals can sometimes become complacent, often sleepwalking past their wants, loves, hopes and fears. Rimbaud, like many great poets and artists, used the muscle of metaphor (which literally translates as ‘carry over’) to awaken our many dormant perceptions. Rimbaud’s words revealed that things were never just as they seem, but a series of complex façades with both duplicities and equivalences. To explore them, he felt that everything could be better understood through the cords ‘of other’. This philosophy was elegantly summarized in his dictum “I is an Other.” It is also the defining approach here — an exercise that expands the obvious by mixing one’s fact with other’s fiction, one’s wonder with other’s folly, to reawaken not just visual perceptions, but all areas of human perception. To better understand metaphor, Geary describes it as a type of literacy that is especially valuable in our current, visual ecosystem, “Metaphorical thought — our instinct not just for describing but for comprehending one thing in terms of another, for equating I with an other — shapes our view of the world, and is essential to how we communicate, learn, discover, and invent. Metaphor is a way of thought long before it is a way with words.” In the visual world, the metaphor wields a similar type of power that can be used as a tool to help understand familiar settings or gestures by setting them against unfamiliar ones. Aristotle considered this to be the genius in our thinking. And yet, so many of us rarely think about these underlying contexts when perceiving a familiar metaphor. And even worse, when faced with a new one, there is a tendency to impose meanings on it by rote, while dismissing its many roots. Just as Aristotle suggested, without learning and attention, we can become vulnerable to impulsive and sometimes reckless equations.
The arrangement of the 12 Degrees face some of our familiar categories and equations by shifting — one degree at time — the frames, mechanics and histories that created them. Over the years I’ve collected hundreds of thousands of images, articles and assignments from the media landscape. In distilling them here, their narratives have no neat categories with beginnings, middles or endings. The larger stages of life never seemed to present themselves in neat boxes or simple categories. Science, art and life seldom work in straight lines, and the arrangement of works are intended to arrange themselves in a similar way. Each of the degrees here mirror a particular reoccurring behaviour in genres of image — voyeuristic, documentary or lifestyle — that are rich in symbolism, and have a tendency to provoke. By juxtaposing different interpretations, the effect is of being shown around a Wunderkammer, where what matters is not the argument, or immediate associations, but the various visual and intellectual treasures that unfold between them. By arranging them as looping mosaics, the 12 narratives are intended to be defined less by differences of a kind, than by degrees of measure.